On May 9, the novelist Mary Stewart, author of romantic suspense novels and an Arthur trilogy, died.
All my life I’ve enjoyed her elegant Gothic novels, as we called this genre when I was growing up in the ’60s: Stewart’s are probably the smartest Gothic mysteries ever written. Her charming, witty, well-educated heroines quote Shakespeare, Milton, and Sophocles as they travel around Corfu, Austria, France, Greece, Crete, Damascus, and other exotic locations. These intrepid narrator-heroines, who were my role models when I was a child, all have jobs: they are actresses, veterinarians, and Latin teachers on vacation. They stumble upon a mystery and fall in love with the hero or villain or both, and once they’ve distinguished which is which, they risk their lives to find clues and solve the crime committed by the smugglers, thieves, or killers.. And they’re all so cool about it.
As an homage I decided to reread one of her early novels, My Brother Michael, not because it’s the best, but because the heroine, Camilla, is a Latin teacher. Is it possible Camilla inspired me to pursue classics?
As the novel opens, Camilla is alone in Athens in a cafe writing a letter to the woman who was supposed to travel with her (she broke a limb). She writes,
“Nothing ever happens to me.”
That said, things begin to happen.
At the cafe, a strange man approaches her, insisting she is “Simon’s girl.” He is delivering keys for the car she hired to drive to Simon in Delphi.” Camilla explains she doesn’t know Simon and she did not hire the car, but the man insists on leaving the key anyway. So she pluckily decides to drive the car herself, since she had planned to go to Delphi anyway. She will deliver the car to Simon and go back on the tour bus.
She has some difficulties: along the way she gets stuck behind a bus which accelerates every time she tries to pass, denudes a cockerel of his tail-feathers, and cannot reverse her car.
At Arachiva, Simon, who is English, takes over: he insists he is not the Simon she is looking for, but he, too, is staying in Delphi, and will drive her there, and find her a hotel.
It turns out that Simon is a classics teacher at a boys’ school (small world) but is here not for the antiquities but to learn what happened to his brother Michael during World War II when he was working with a guerilla group.
Camilla visits various Greeks with him. Who were Michael’s friends or enemies? The novel proceeds quickly, with its glimmer of glamour and sex.
My favorite book by Stewart is This Rough Magic, which, as you will guess, plays with the theme of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Stewart’s best mysteries are The Moon-Spinners, This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds, and Airs Above the Ground.
If you like Daphne du Maurier, you are likely to enjoy Stewart.
Stewart also wrote a King Arthur trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.
You can read her obituary in The New York Times.
2. In The Wall Street Journal, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is recommended as a commencement gift.
A Confederacy of Dunces” draws so heavily on its locale, in fact, that Louisianans have wondered how—or if—the novel’s peculiar charms might appeal to readers in other places. They needn’t have worried. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, and more than 3.5 million copies of the novel have been sold around the world. It’s been translated into more than two dozen languages. A stage version of the book is reportedly in the works.
3. Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post Style Blog about Karen Joy Fowler’s acceptance speech for The PEN/Faulkner Award for her stunning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I wrote about here.
4. If you’re in Chicago June 7-8, you can attend The Printers Row Book Fest. The line-up includes James Patterson, Lidia Bastianich, Stuart Dybek, Barbara Ehrenreich, Joseph J. Ellis, Bill and Willie Geist, Jon Langford, Lorrie Moore, Walter Mosley, Justin Roberts, Mavis Staples, Cal Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Colson Whitehead and Andrew Zimmern.