Classic Crime – Mary Stewart

When I was a teenager, most of my reading was done through books borrowed from my local library. I only have to see the yellow hardbacks of Victor Gollancz or Agatha Christie Collins Crime Club editions to be transported back to those days. One author I regularly saw on the shelves but passed over was Mary Stewart. Given the amount of crime reading I did I’m not sure why I was disinclined to read the author but that was rectified recently when two of her books were added to my reading list. The first, Wildfire at Midnight, I acquired second-hand in Athens, Greece and is a 1956 paperback edition printed in the US. Before you even start reading the novel there is a wealth of history in the book. The cover is straight out of the 1950s with a young woman up a mountain in court shoes and a trench coat and inside the front cover, a stamp identifies the book sold by the American News Agency in Athens for 48 drachmas. The second book I acquired was Touch Not the Cat, a 2011 reissue by Hodder, with the front cover re-branded for a twenty-first century audience. And yet despite the difference in presentation, the stories inside were very similar.

Wildfire at Midnight tells the story of Gianetta, a clothes model at a London fashion house who travels to the Isle of Skye in Scotland for a rest. There are only ten or so other people in the hotel, including her ex-husband Nicholas. The group is reluctant to talk about the huge mountain, Blaven, that looms over the hotel until it is revealed that a local girl was recently found murdered there. All the guests in the hotel, with the exception of Gianetta, are suspects. When two other women disappear, the group search for the missing climbers uncomfortably aware that one of them is likely to be a murderer.

I’d forgotten that many books from this time had no blurbs to accompany them. I had no idea what to expect but it was quite fun to plunge straight into the narrative. The book was half-thriller and half-romance and I enjoyed the thriller aspect very much. There was the suggestion of the supernatural in the killings and although this wasn’t realised, Stewart effectively portrayed the eeriness of the mountains in this remote part of the world. Although I worked out the identity of the murderer early on, this was the part of the fun of it as the reader is almost one step ahead of the protagonist. The romance parts I found slightly less satisfactory, they reminded me of Mills and Boon books with the plethora of adverbs – ‘sardonically’, ‘raggedly’ –  now passée. But again quite good fun to read. This book has also been reissued with as part of the Hodder series.

In Touch Not the Cat, the supernatural element was more pronounced with Bryony, the female protagonist, having an inherited telepathic ability to communicate with someone she calls her ‘lover’ although she has no idea who he is. When her father dies, the crumbling Ashley estate in the Malvern Hills is entailed away to one of her male cousins, who with his twin brother is already looking to realise the cash value of the lands. Although initially happy to help, when she realises small items of value have been disappearing from the house, she begins to reassess her father’s accidental death and is determined to find the mysterious stranger snooping around the estate.

Like the first book, I spotted who the ‘lover’ was fairly early on but I actually enjoyed the romance more in this book. I suspect (but am not sure) that the editor’s pen has been at work in this reissue and the romance has been made more palatable for a twenty-first century reader. Once more Stewart effectively created an atmosphere of tension and evil to deliver a very enjoyable read.

Mary Stewart, born in 1916, doesn’t have a website, although there is a fun, unofficial site here, completely in keeping with the style of the books.

20 thoughts on “Classic Crime – Mary Stewart

  1. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – What a fine review of these two books, and a lovely reminder of my own youth. I remember Touch Not the Cat very well actually. In fact I was thinking about it not long ago. Odd you’d choose to write about it today. I’m so glad you re-discovered these books. Mary Stewart definitely has writing talent in my opinion and you’re quite right that part of her talent is in creating atmosphere.


  2. I remember that this author was very popular with several girls at school, though she never appealed to me at the time as I was not into books I perceived as “girly”. I do remember when books did not have blurbs, and what a difference it made to one’s “pleasure of discovery”. Thanks for these reviews, I am not sure if I am tempted to read her, but I certainly enjoyed your analyses.


  3. Hey, classic crime. Hey, hey an author I’ve not tried. Even better! What with the slightly Fortean bent these sound right up my street and I can’t believe I’ve not come across her before. Will have to try and find some to read. I enjoy reading these posts of yours – even when they don’t inspire me to read the book.


  4. Keishon

    I am a big Victoria Holt fan. There’s always been this “rivalry” of sorts between Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Well, at least in my mind anyway. Both are wonderful writers but I must say that Stewart’s books seems to hold up very well.


    1. Now I did read Victoria Holt as a teenager although I doubt I’ll reread them anytime soon. Now you mention it I can definitely see the similarities. Thanks Keishon.


  5. PeterReynard

    Oh Mills & Boon. I remember the days when every girl in middle school had one of these books at all times. The local library had an entire aisle devoted to Mills & Boon which I thought was the most egregious waste of space when the only representatives of the mystery genre were a few Christies and Gardners. I was bitter if you can’t tell. 🙂


    1. Thanks Peter for dropping by.
      Mills and Boon seemed to be the staple of my local library too but they also had an excellent crime section. My Mum used to read M&B and she had a theory that if a book had more love scenes than normal, then it was written by a man masquerading as a woman. I have no idea if this was true but it makes me laugh even now when I think of it. I expect that they were very tame by modern standards!


      1. PeterReynard

        Ha. I think that is an awesome way to tell if it is a man who is writing the novels. I don’t remember reading a M&B ever (maybe I have just blocked it out of my mind) but you are right, they must have been very tame.


  6. Actually a lot of Mills & Boon was soft core porn dressed up in euphemisms – like calling a spade a digging implement, M & B’s were full of throbbing manhoods and centres of pleasure.


  7. Pingback: The Best of May’s Reading « crimepieces

  8. Just noticed this review of Mary Stewart, who died recently. A couple of weeks ago I saw her funeral notice in my town (Oban); believe she lived just outside town at Loch Awe. She lived to a grand age – her 90s – and was a Lady, through marriage I believe. Sad to see our dreadful local paper had no word on her passing.


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