Mary Stewart was born in 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England and
graduated from Durham University, later serving as a lecturer in
English Language and Literature there. She turned to writing novels in
the 1950s and is considered to be one of the founders of "romantic
suspense." Her marriage to Sir Frederick Stewart, one-time chairman of
the Geology Department of Edinburgh University, led to extensive travels
that provided inspiration for the detailed exotic settings her novels
are famous for.
One such novel heavily dependent upon a sense of place is 1964's This Rough Magic, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel in 1965 (beaten out by John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). Lucy Waring, a young British stage actress whose first big play folded abruptly, is having a hard time finding work, so she accepts an invitation to stay with her married sister on the idyllic Ionian island of Corfu. At least, it appears idyllic, but on her first morning there, someone shoots at a tame dolphin, a young Greek boy drowns off the coast of Albania, and soon afterward a smuggler washes up dead in a nearby cove. The prime suspect is one of their neighbors, the handsome, arrogant son of a famous British actor-turned-hermit, although he's not the only one with secrets to hide.
In the story, Corfu is the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest, which provides plenty of fodder for tie-ins to Shakespeare's play, including the character of Sir Julian Gale (who is a Lawrence Olivier clone), elements such as a deliberate take on Prospero's books, a girl named Miranda and a touch of Ariel's music and epigraphs from the play prefacing each chapter, along with plenty of other literary references.
Setting is another major aspect of the novel, not surprising since the author has said she is blessed with a very good visual memory, "almost like a movie camera. When I start describing something in a book, I find myself putting down things I didn't know I'd caught. I'm a sponge, a happy thing for a writer to be":
The alleys were deserted, save for the thin cats and the singing birds in cages on the walls. Here and there, where a gap in the homes had a blazing wedge of sunlight across the stones, dusty kittens baked themselves in patches of marigolds, or very old women peered from the black doorways. The smell of charcoal-cooking hung in the warm air. Our steps echoed up the hills while from the main streets the sound of talk and laughter surged back at us, muted like the roar of a river in a distant gorge.
Stewart is also solid in her characterizations for the most part,
with Lucy, the typical plucky-and-feisty Stewart heroine, and the
various supporting cast members fleshed out in vivid detail,
particularly the aging hermit actor, Sir Julian. As this is "romantic
suspense," there are a couple of love-story angles involved. However,
they actually take a back seat to the suspense elements that start off
slowly but build steadily until the end, which includes a bona fide deus ex machina (involving a young man, a motorcycle and the island's patron saint, Spiridion).
As for male readers hesitant to pick up a Stewart book, Anthony Boucher noted that "it would take a suspiciously over-male he-man to resist the charm and narrative vigor of Mary Stewart's adventure stories." Stewart's strong story-telling skills are indeed evident, something she once commented on: "I've written stories since I was three and a half, and I think you're either born with the storyteller's flair or you're not. You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the storyteller's flair or you don't. It's no virtue of mine. It's just there."
(Reposted from April, 2011)