She wasn’t hailed as the Queen of Suspense for nothing. Mary Stewart has this amazing ability to surprise you with her choice of seemingly ordinary circumstances and characters on which to build an utterly startling yet plausible story of suspense and drama out of it.
One of the first novels I’ve read of hers is The Moonspinners, and this was back in my early 20s. Since then, I’ve picked up her books on and off. I recall a period when I was absolutely mad about suspense with a subtle romance angle, and besides Mary Stewart, my other favourite author is M M Kaye, whose ‘Death in …’ series bear similar traits to Stewart. Stewart writes in the first person, so you’re experiencing the adventure through her young, often intelligent and courageous, heroine’s eyes.
In ‘Madam, Will You Talk?’, Stewart sweeps the reader into the serene hilly town of Avignon and Marseilles, France where Charity Shelbourne, a war widow trying to make a fresh start, is holidaying with her teacher girlfriend. Before long, she’s befriended a lonely 14-year-old boy and somehow got embroiled into a tangled mystery involving car chases, narrow escapes, mistaken identities, and a far-fetched but remotely related event from the past which came back to haunt the key players of this novel in the present day.
Stewart imbues her story with a sense of urgency through bizarre and unrelated events which somehow impact the present, resulting in surprising twists and plot developments that make you marvel at the cleverness of her foresight. It doesn’t hurt that she takes the effort and time to set the story, so you are treated to a travel journal taking you through the lovely South of France while on a thrilling adventure with the heroine.
In The Ivy Tree, she takes the reader through the rustic countryside of Northumberland, a very unlikely scene of suspense and drama, while unfolding a tragic tale of thwarted desires, clandestine love and dangerous intentions borne out of a misplaced belief of injustice and greed.
What got me hooked on the book was the premise that the heroine, Mary Grey, impersonating as an heiress, Annabel Winslow, believed to be dead in order to help the poor cousin gain a share of the inheritance. However, she stumbles unknowingly into a shocking discovery: somebody wants the real Annabel to stay missing and will go to any length to make that happen.
Stewart wove the story so brilliantly that I didn’t suspect the true identity of Annabel until she was unveiled. She held me riveted with page after page brimming with intrigue and unsolved mysteries which, to a curious mind, is the most irresistible lure. Getting to the bottom of all the evasive half answers and the reason behind Annabel’s disappearance consumed me … I couldn’t put this book down until I finally learnt the tragic truth. But lest you think this tale is all bleak, there is a happy ending and two star-crossed lovers were finally reunited.
These are definitely two Mary Stewart books I would recommend to suspense and/or mystery lovers.