Earlier this week I was “tagged” on Facebook* to list fifteen authors who have influenced my writing. If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll easily guess a lot of my favourites – Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen are always at the top of the list, and as a child I loved Rumer Godden, L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the literary side are Tolstoy and Ford Madox Ford, and the brilliant Alexandre Dumas. My list is wide-ranging but all the authors on it have one thing in common – they all tell a cracking story.
The great Mary Stewart is also high up on the list of writers who have influenced me. It’s a few years now since I re-read one of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, and so I got to thinking what it was about her writing that has such staying-power, and just how she has been an influence. I love the fact that the heroines in her suspenses are often unremarkable at the start of the story – just ordinary women with ordinary problems, such as getting over a broken relationship (My Brother Michael), or finding themselves out of work (This Rough Magic). The heroines are almost always alone at the start of the book – Linda Martin in Nine Coaches Waiting is travelling alone to France to take up a post as governess; Gianetta Brooke in Wildfire at Midnight is holidaying alone on the Isle of Skye. The fact that they’re alone shows they are self-reliant and independent. As the stories progress, the reader discovers (along with the heroine!) that when the chips are down, this unremarkable person has hidden reserves and a core of steel. Charity in Madam, Will You Talk, for example, turns out to be a cool driver and she escapes the hero in some dashing and nail-biting car chases. In My Brother Michael, Camilla is holidaying (alone) in Greece when she’s delivered a hire car, with a mysterious message about “life and death”. All of a sudden she’s plunged into a dangerous situation – one that she meets head on, with aplomb.
One of the things I love the most about Stewart’s novels is the way danger rears its head in an idyllic setting – in the very place you would least expect it. Here’s the start of Madam, Will You Talk:
“When we arrived one afternoon, after a hot but leisurely journey, at the enchanting walled city of Avignon, we felt in that mood of pleasant weariness which marks, I believe, the beginning of every normal holiday.
No cloud in the sky; no sombre shadow on the machicolated walls; no piercing glance from an enigmatic stranger as we drove in at the Porte de la République and up the sun-dappled Cours Jean-Jaurès. And certainly no involuntary shiver of apprehension as we drew up at last in front of the Hôtel Tistet-Védène, where we had booked rooms for the greater part of our stay…
How was I to know, that lovely quiet afternoon, that most of the actors in the tragedy were at that moment assembled in this neat, unpretentious little Provençal hotel…”
A quiet hotel in sunny Provence – how much more dramatic it is, and how much more shocking, when terror comes to such an idyllic location. All of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels feature similar beautiful settings – from France to Crete, to Skye, Northumberland and Vienna. The contrast between the beauty of the setting and the lurking danger is a big part of her novels’ appeal for me.
It was when I revisited the start of that particular novel by Mary Stewart that I realised just how big an influence she has had on my own writing. I have two romantic suspense novellas featuring an ordinary heroine called Lizzie Smith. (Even the name is ordinary:) ) Both novellas are set in idyllic surroundings – Palace of Deception is set in a fictional principality on the Mediterranean, and The Scottish Diamond is set in Edinburgh.
Here is the start of Palace of Deception:
The tiny country of Montverrier is a secret jewel, hidden away in southern Europe, between the mountains and the Mediterranean. It has no airport, and so Mr Ross had provided me with first-class tickets to travel by train; a winding journey along the coast road, past fields of sunflowers on one side, and the glittering Mediterranean on the other. As the high speed train glided further south, the unease that had dogged me since leaving Edinburgh began to melt away, warmed by the sun and the vibrant colours. I pressed my face to the window and gazed out at the horizon, where the burnt orange of the sunflowers merged with a brilliant blue sky. All was as still as an oil painting. How could anything sinister ever happen in such a glorious place?
A beautiful setting with a hint of the sinister … This is an echo of Mary Stewart’s writing – and it’s only now, since I began asking myself why I think her writing has been so important, that I’ve realised just how much of an influence she has actually been! I’ve been a voracious reader ever since I was a child, and I’m sure there must be echoes in my writing of plenty of other authors I’ve admired along the way.
With the sun shining on an idyllic scene where I live in Yorkshire, I feel like picking up one of my many Mary Stewart novels and immersing myself in another one of her tales of romance, danger and suspense.
(If you’d like to read what happens next in Palace of Deception, I’m giving away a free copy to all new subscribers to my newsletter. You can sign up here.)
* If you’re on Facebook and would like to friend me, my profile is here. I mainly post photos of idyllic settings :)
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Are you a fan of Mary Stewart? Do you have any favourite novels where the setting plays a vital role? And if you’re a writer, which authors do you think have had a particular influence on your writing?
If you have any comments at all, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!
8 thoughts on “Mary Stewart: danger and suspense in an idyllic setting”
Mary Stewart is one of my all-time favourite writers, Helena! I devoured every single one of her books and the same with Victoria Holt.
I haven’t read any Victoria Holt for a long while, either, Rosemary. I’ve got a long plane journey coming up when I go to visit my daughter in New Zealand. Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt will definitely keep my mind off it!
Thanks for dropping in!
I agree with liking the terror taking place in a peaceful setting–such a contrast. When I think about it, Deadly Undertaking is the same contrast. Who would think about murder in a funeral home setting? So much fun! Interesting to read how you discovered you were influenced by Mary Stewart’s stories. I have not read any of her books, but definitely will now. Thanks for introducing her to me. I have always admired the humor of Mark Twain and the storytelling of Jan Karon. They both include all the elements of wit and warmth in their writing.
I loved the start to Deadly Undertaking, JQ. A dead body in a funeral home – that still cracks me up!
I think you’d like Mary Stewart. They’re a little old-fashioned in parts but still great page-turners and lovely descriptions (and heroes :) )
I’ve never read any Jan Karon. I checked out her website – her books look a great read! Thanks for the recommendation!
Yes, love her, Helena. I think my favourite (v hard to pick one) is Airs Above the Ground.
I love that one, too, Kate. It’s quite a while since I read it last. That’s definitely going on my Kindle for my trip!
Thanks for dropping in!
Hi, it’s lovely to see how Mary Stewart’s writing is still admired, over 60 years after her first book was published.
I’m a fellow fan of hers, I can’t think of anyone who writes quite as beautifully. I agree setting is important, I’ve just re-read her novella The Wind off the Small Isles and the setting, on volcanic Lanzarote, is vividly written and central to the story.
“The track became a lane, deep between lava walls crowned with the candelabra cactus, which after a while gave way to a sort of jungle of prickly pear, so thickly grown that not even a goat could have pushed its way through. We ploughed steeply downwards, trailing our wake of black dust.”
– I don’t know about you, but I’m in the car with Perdita by this point, and feeling every bump!
I wrote a post about The Wind off the Small Isles here: https://marystewartreading.wordpress.com/2016/09/21/re-issue-of-the-wind-off-the-small-isles/
Hi Allison, thanks so much for dropping in and for sharing your fascinating post. I had no idea this novella had just been republished. How exciting. I can’t wait to read it! I’ve just shared your post on FB and will share on Twitter. Love your quote from it. Thanks for your comment!
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