Between Two Islands

One of the best parts of the Reread Project is reminding myself how much I truly love and appreciate certain writers.

Mary Stewart is certainly at the top of that list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I read most of Mary Stewart’s so-called “romantic suspense” novels when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, my favorites being The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground.  Unfortunately, the mists of time and my faulty memory have robbed me of just how good the other books she wrote were; I recently reread The Moon-spinners and loved it more than I remembered loving it the first time; likewise, I started rereading This Rough Magic this week (finishing yesterday) and it, like The Moon-spinners, is fucking brilliant; far better than I remembered it being–and frankly, far better than it had any right being (says the incredibly jealous author).

Like most of Stewart’s novels, the book is set somewhere other than England–this one is Corfu, just off the coasts of Greece and Albania. (The Moon-spinners was set on Crete, and My Brother Michael was also set in Greece.) I’ve always wanted to visit Greece; it’s on my bucket list with Egypt, France, Germany and England. I loved Greek mythology and history when I was a kid, and of course I absolutely loved Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire; aka the Byzantine empire, as well. Paul also would love to return to Greece–he spent a summer there as a teenager as an exchange student.

Stewart is often described, and counted amongst, romantic suspense novelists of the mid to late twentieth century, primarily because she was a female writing suspense novels about women in a time period where publishing didn’t know how to market women-driven suspense novels written by women. While there are slight elements of romance included in her novels, it’s often an afterthought, and rarely actually drives the plot–it’s more like a little lagniappe; something extra tossed in to appease editors and readers that she really had no interest in exploring. At first, you think, wow, her characters kind of fall in love awfully quickly with total strangers–and then you realize, oh, of course they did–women weren’t really allowed to be sexual beings in those days so it had to be masked as falling in love plus the “romance” elements were easily explained by the “trench warfare mentality”–in which soldiers become bonded to the guys they are serving with because they are responsible for each other’s lives; it’s not a stretch to see a romantic attachment grow between two people who are in a tough, difficult situation in which they could easily both wind up dead.

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“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course…Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?

“As a matter of face, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.” My sister yawned, stretched out a foot into the sunshine at the edge of the terrace, and admired the expensive beach sandal on it. “I didn’t mean that, anyway, I only meant that we’ve already got a Miranda here, and a Spiro, which may not be short for Prospero, but sounds very much like it.”

“Oh? It sounds highly romantic. Who are they?”

“A local boy and girl: they’re twins.”

Lucy Waring, a twenty-five year old British aspiring actress, finds herself on the island of Corfu visiting her very pregnant sister who married very well–to a wealthy Italian banker whose family owns an enormous property on Corfu, which includes an enormous castle-style main structure and two guest villas some distance away, all gathered together on the shoreline of a small, private bay. Lucy’s big break has just come and went in a play that closed after only two months, so she has gratefully accepted her sister Phyllida’s invitation to come stay for a while with her on Corfu. There’s a photographer staying in the other villa; the main castle is being rented to a retired British actor, Sir Julian Gale, best known for his performances in Shakespeare (The Tempest in particular) and his son Max, a composer–and trespassers are forbidden and frowned upon. That very first day Lucy decides to go down to the beach and sunbathe, and while she is down there she makes the acquaintance of a friendly dolphin, much to her delight–and the suspense begins when someone starts shooting, with a silenced gun, at the dolphin. She assumes the shots are coming from the castle, so she goes storming up there, and soon becomes entangled in the affairs of Sir Julian and his son Max.

Stewart’s mastery as a story-teller is so complete that she doesn’t waste a word or a scene; her economy of writing is astonishingly complex and clever. For example, that opening sequence, quoted above, seems like simply a lovely back-and-forth introduction to Lucy and her sister while establishing their affectionate closeness; but Stewart uses that dialogue to tell the readers things that are going to be important to the novel: they are on Corfu, references to The Tempest are scattered throughout the book and are incredibly important, not just to the story but for the atmosphere (Stewart was an incredibly literate writer; references to classic literature are scattered throughout her works, be it Shakespeare or Greek mythology or Tennyson, etc.), and even the throwaway line about the twins, Spiro and Miranda, isn’t a throwaway–the two are very important to the story.

And Lucy Waring is no shrinking violet, either–none of Stewart’s heroines are. Lucy courageously thinks nothing of putting herself in danger in order to help catch a monstrous, sociopathic killer:

He must have felt me watching him, for he flicked me a glance, and smiled, and I found myself smiling back quite spontaneously, and quite without guile. In spite of myself, in spire of Max, and Spiro’s story, I could not believe it. The thing was, as I had said to Max, impossible in daylight.

Which was just as well. If I was to spend the next few hours with him, I would have to shut my mind to all that I had learned, to blot out the scene in the cellar, drop Spiro out of existence as if he were indeed dead. And, harder than all, drop Max. There was a curiously strong and secret pleasure, I had found, of speaking of him as “Mr. Gale” in the off-hand tones that Godfrey and Phyllida commonly used, as one might of a stranger to whom one is under an obligation, but whom one hardly considers enough to like or dislike.

There’s also a few amazing chapters in which Lucy, having found the definitive evidence to convict the killer, is trapped with nowhere to go on his sailboat when he returns–she hides, but is spotted, and then reveals herself and in an astonishing display of bravado tries to play the entire thing off, but winds up going overboard herself and trying to make it to shore–only to be helped by the very dolphin she herself had helped rescue earlier in the book.

As I said, nothing happens or is done in a Stewart book that doesn’t have significance or come into play later.

I cannot tell you how much I loved rereading this book, and while I’d love to dive into another Stewart reread, I’m probably going to do another Phyllis Whitney–oh, and I buried the lede! I read the entire thing as an ebook on my iPad–so I have finally broken through that final barrier to reading books electronically, and may never pack a book to take with me when I travel again as long as I live!

Who says you can’t teach an old queen new tricks?

Walking the Floor Over You

I have always loved to read, and have always encouraged other people to read. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped reading. I will probably never stop reading. There are fewer non-sexual pleasures in life as satisfying as reading a good book.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother got me really started into watching old movies–both horror and crime–and also encouraged me to read. She was the one who got me started reading Mary Stewart, by giving me her copy of The Ivy Tree; my friend Felicia in high school reminded me of Stewart and so I started reading more of her work. (I still have not read all of Mary Stewart’s work–that “I don’t ever want to run out of something new to read by Mary Stewart” thing I do) And while I enjoyed all of them, I enjoyed some more than others. For example, i remember reading The Moon-spinners, but not really enjoying it very much, frankly. I never revisited the book…but now that I am doing the Reread Project, I decided to give it another read.

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It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairytale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of the deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

The car from Heraklion had set me down where the track for Agios Georgios leaves the road. I got out, adjusted on my shoulder the big bag of embroidered canvas that did duty as a haversack, then turned to thank the American couple for the lift.

“It was a pleasure, honey.” Mrs. Studebaker peered, rather anxiously, out of the car window. “But are you sure you’re all right? I don’t like putting you down on the hill like this, in the middle of nowhere. You’re sure you’re in the right place? What does that sign post say?”

The above pictured cover was the one I originally read; the reread was of a more recent edition. When I was younger, I was fascinated by ancient history: Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to be exact; Greek or Roman or Egyptian ruins on the cover of a book, especially if it was a suspense novel, drew me to the book like moth to flame. (That was what originally drew me to read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Mystery of the Hidden Hand, which I now believe–my memory lies, remember–was the first Whitney I read, because it was set in Greece) I had also remembered seeing a film version of The Moon-spinners, broken up over two weeks’ episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, which starred Hayley Mills. I don’t remember much of the film now, but I do remember thinking it was vastly different from the book when I read it the first time. It’s not on Disney Plus (neither is Johnny Tremain or Now You See Him Now You Don’t, which has annoyed me regularly since I signed up for the service), and I’m not about to spend even three dollars on renting it on Amazon Prime–although I was tempted enough to look it up to see if it can actually be viewed anywhere.

Anyway.

I enjoyed the book much more greatly this time. I’m not certain why, precisely, I didn’t like it as much as Stewart’s other books at the time, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. The Moon-spinners focuses on Nicola Ferris, an adventurous young Englishwoman in her early twenties. She works at the British Embassy in Athens; her parents died when she was a teenager and she went to live with her aunt Frances, who is a leading botanist. Frances is also single and terribly independent, like most women in Stewart novels; Nicola admires and loves her aunt greatly and emulates her. Her aunt is taking a yacht voyage with friends around Greece and the islands; Nicola decides to take a vacation, meet up with Frances on Crete–a friend, a travel writer, has recommended a very remote village with a small hotel to them–and Nicola has the great good fortune, while on Crete, to meet an American couple (the above mentioned Studebakers) who are driving around Crete and offer her a lift to Agios Georgios, putting her there a day earlier than expected. (This sentence, describing the Studebakers,  They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly overwhelming kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue–is a terrific example of Stewart’s exceptional skill as a writer; in that one sentence she tells you exactly who the Studebakers are.) The Studebakers aren’t terribly keen on letting her off in the middle of nowhere, to lug her suitcases and such over a dusty mountain trail to a village where she isn’t expected until tomorrow and where she will know no one; fortunately her work at the embassy has given her a passable knowledge of speaking Greek.  Nicola insists she’s fine and thanks them for their kindness, and starts trudging along the dusty path.

All of Stewart’s heroines are strong, capable, intelligent young woman who can take care of themselves; and courageous. It is while walking on the path that Nicola’s Greek adventure takes off–she stops at a pond to get a drink of water, and in the reflection of the water she sees a man’s face, watching her. Your average run-of-the-mill heroine would scream and run off or be terrified; Nicola is merely startled and curious. This is how she comes across Lambis, the Greek boatman, and young Mark Langley, who has been shot and needs medical attention. Nicola immediately makes Mark’s problems her own. Lambis, as it turns out, had put in his boat in a nearby bay so that Mark and his younger brother Colin could go exploring and look at the ruins of an old church, originally a shrine to a Greek god but converted during the days of the old Eastern Empire into a Byzantine church. As they are walking back to the boat they come across of small group of people arguing over a recently dead body. Mark is shot and left for dead; Colin is taken. And so, now of course, Nicola wants to help rescue Colin and help Mark–she isn’t, after all, expected for another day, and of course, the killers/kidnappers must be from the small town of Agios Georgios.

Stewart is, as always, an exceptionally talented writer. Her descriptions are simple yet poetic; she vividly brings the town, the mountains, the sea, everything to life so well you can easily imagine yourself there. And courageous Nicola, now possessed of dangerous knowledge that could get her killed, has to navigate the village while trying to help Mark find Colin, with no idea of who she can trust and where she can turn to help.

Nicola is a terrific heroine, and I can see why Stewart was so popular with women and teenaged girls; she wrote smart, no-nonsense, capable young women who were courageous and fearless and could pretty much handle anything. The suspense is, at times, unbearable.

There is an element of romance to the story as well; Nicola begins to have feelings for Mark, but it’s practically an afterthought, and it feels almost like it was inserted into the story. There’s absolutely no need for the two of them to develop feelings for each other; other than the psychological closeness that comes from a shared danger (one of the things I loved the most about the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, is that it showed that happy couples who bond over adventures don’t necessarily wind up living happily ever after; I’ve often wondered about the couples from these types of novels), and this is one of the reasons I no longer really consider Stewart a romantic suspense writer; the romances in her books often feel that way–something inserted into the story later to appease either her agent or editor–and they are completely unnecessary to the story; if anything, the romance develop organically because of what else is going on in the story; the suspense/mystery aspect is the most important part.

And Stewart consistently wrote some of the best openings in crime fiction.

Highly recommended; I will probably reread it again someday.