(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mary Stewart’s comments on her own work in an article published in The Writer in 1970 provide an illuminating account of her development and her principal concerns as a novelist. Her first five novels she describes as “exploratory,” for she was experimenting with a variety of different forms. Madam, Will You Talk? is a chase story with all the traditional elements of the thriller. The plot, which hinged on a series of improbable coincidences, was woven around the theme of a “fate-driven love, self-contained, all-else-excluding.” Wildfire at Midnight (1956) is a classic detective story, the writing of which, she says, honed certain technical skills. Nevertheless, she was impatient and dissatisfied with the necessary emphasis on plot rather than character and disliked the conventional detective story, in which “pain and murder are taken for granted and used as a parlor game.” In Thunder on the Right (1957) she experimented for the first and only time with a third-person rather than first-person narrator. In spite of the limitations a first-person narrator imposes in some areas (detailed description can be given, for example, only of events in which the narrator is a direct participant), Stewart came to prefer it because of the “vividness, personal involvement and identification” that it makes possible. Stewart’s skillful handling of this form of narration so as to evoke these responses in her readers contributes in no small measure to her popularity.

Perhaps the hallmark of Stewart’s fiction can be found in her description of what she was attempting in her first five novels. They werea deliberate attempt . . . to discard certain conventions which seemed . . . to remove the novel of action so far from real life that it became a charade or a puzzle in which no reader could involve himself sufficiently really to care. I tried to take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal everyday people with normal everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not “heroic” in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.

Nine Coaches Waiting

These concerns are readily apparent in her fourth and fifth novels, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958) and My Brother Michael (1960). Nine Coaches Waiting is a gothic tale, designed as a variation on the Cinderella story. Young Linda Martin accepts a post as English governess to the nine-year-old Comte Philippe de Valmy, at a remote chateau in High Savoy. She falls in love with the boy’s cousin, Raoul de Valmy, but comes to suspect that he is part of a plot against the boy’s life. Faced with the choice between love and duty—which Stewart has identified as the main theme of the novel—she puts the boy’s welfare first, while hoping against hope that her lover is innocent. Her virtue wins its inevitable reward; in the denouement, the wicked uncle, who is behind the plot, shoots himself, and Cinderella gets her Prince Charming. Although the plot is fragile, Stewart cleverly maintains the suspense with a mix of familiar elements: surprise revelations, sudden and unexpected confrontations, a search— during which the hardly-daring-to-breathe heroine comes within a whisker of being discovered—and a chase. Some ingenious variations include a sleepwalking villainess unconsciously revealing her guilt à la Lady Macbeth, and a romantic red herring in the form of a tall, attractive Englishman who befriends the heroine early in the novel—but who never comes as prominently into the story as the reader, cunningly tricked by Stewart, expects. Linda herself is a typical Stewart heroine. She is modest, tactful, and considerate, possesses integrity but is not a prig (she is capable of some white lies), is vulnerable and understandably frightened at what she has got herself into, but is also resourceful and capable, fully prepared to do what the situation demands of her.

My Brother Michael

A similar description could be applied to Camilla Haven, the heroine of My Brother Michael. Her self-deprecating sense of humor, revealed early in the novel by her alarming incompetence behind the wheel of an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar country, quickly endears her to the reader. Caught up in a series of dangerous events in Delphi, she rises to the occasion not without self-doubt but also with considerable bravery.

Her companion, Simon Lester, is a typical Stewart hero. He first meets Camilla when he takes over the wheel of her car and gets her out of a difficult driving situation (difficult for her, that is—Stewart’s men are always superb drivers). Simon possesses an easy, relaxed self-confidence, a quiet strength, competence, and great determination. He stays...

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