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.