A thriller with car chases, people who are not who they seem, and the scenery of southern France dominate this 1955 thriller narrated in the voice of Charity Selbourne. From a hotel in a small town to the streets of a big city, this fast moving and tense classic features a lot of elements that make for an exciting novel. There are questions to be answered amid the ruins and tourist sites which Charity has come to visit, and the descriptions of the settings are so vivid as to make an unknown area truly come alive. Like Stewart’s other classic thrillers which involve murder and mystery, this is a book where the setting, with vivid descriptions of roads, hotels, even rooms, help bring to life a well plotted story. The characters, from a bright and frightened boy to a sophisticated woman are established quickly and effectively. I also enjoy the dialogue, whether full of menace or gently amusing, which is so helpful in establishing the personality of the characters as well as the progress of the story. As always with a Mary Stewart story it is easy to become involved with a well written novel and engaged with a brilliant paced story.
“The whole affair began so very quietly” The book opens with two friends, Charity and Louise, arriving and getting established in a small French hotel. Louise is a school teacher, and keen to sit and sketch, whereas Charity is a young widow, enthusiastic about visiting all the tourist spots. She is also the sort of person who enjoys people watching, guessing at nationalities, ways of behaving and so forth. She observes a boy in the courtyard of the hotel, struggling with his dog Rommel, which he has tied on a piece of string. It soon emerges that he is called David, English and apparently troubled. He is bright and articulate, but seems uneasy, especially when she suggests the name Byron when he mentions that his surname is Shelly. His apparent mother is expensively attractive, but disinterested in the boy. The humour of the book emerges in exchanges with Louise, when Charity offers to go to see the Pont du Gard, Louise answers “My dear, I’ve seen the Holborn Viaduct, life can hold no more…” Accordingly she goes alone to the city of Avignon, mindful of the story of a boy whose father was arrested for hitting him and murdering a friend. When she spots David en route she offers to take him and his dog to Avignon. The boy suddenly becomes extremely frightened, and it is when Charity is alone she has an encounter which leaves her bruised and shaken. She chooses to visit a town famous for its ruins, and while there she has a terrifying encounter, which triggers off a chase which covers many miles and discoveries.
This is a book which is full of surprises and plot twists, as secrets from the past clash with deceptions of the present. It is a book which is extremely well plotted, which maintains the reader’s involvement in the small details and the large themes. I found it a great read, which kept my interest right until the very entertaining end. I recommend it as another engaging novel from a superb writer.
I spent an entertaining hour or so sorting out books with my daughter today, as she gathered more of her stuff. She discovered that I had a lot of duplicates of Georgette Heyer books, and I tried to explain that as she published something like fifty novels I may have acquired mote than one copy of some. I am obviously going to have to work out some sort of checklist from Fantastic Fiction or similar if I am going to have to check the missing books! Similarly I am going to have to do something with my Mary Stewart collection – there are eighteen novels in addition to the Arthurian series. I am certainly enjoying discovering and rediscovering both authors’s books – at least until I run out of them!