In Which I Imagine Myself as a Gothic Heroine/Detective: Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right & Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective

Bike 'n' Read

Equipment for a Bike ‘n’ Read (or a Collapse ‘n’ Read!)

It’s not the heat, but the humidity, they say.  Halfway through a bike ride the other day, I collapsed on a bench, whether because of the heat or the humidity I couldn’t say.  As I guzzled from a water bottle, I felt as wan as the heroine of a Gothic novel after a hard day preventing a murder in the French Pyrenees.   You know the Gothic formula:  You arrive at a convent in France to visit your cousin before she takes her vows, only to find she is dead, and then your questions are deflected by a Spanish nun impersonator who lives at the convent but has not been allowed to become a nun, and eventually you’re running through the woods and nipping down gullies  in a storm…

thunder on the right stewart old paperback 13414472That’s how things go for Jennifer Silver, the artist heroine of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right I love Stewart’s Gothic novels of the ’50s and ’60s, which in recent years have been called “romantic suspense.” (What is “romantic” suspense?) Although Stewart’s Gothics are not available as e-books (the most portable books for a bike trip), I have a small nifty paperback that fits in my bag.

Stewart (1916-2014) was a brilliant writer of elegant novels about bright, witty young women  (actresses, veterinarians, artists, secretaries, etc.), who,  usually while traveling abroad, stumble upon a mystery, and  fall in love with a dashing man.  My favorite of her books is This Rough Magic: Lucy, an actress, visits her sister in her villa on Corfu, and not only rescues a beached dolphin with the help of a surly musician, but discusses the origins of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with his father, a famous actor who believes Corfu is the setting.  And of course there’s a crime or three to solve…

Thunder on the Right (1957), her third novel, may not be her best, but it is a page-turner.   The heroine, Jennifer,  is very smart and literary: immediately upon arrival at the creepy convent, she wryly is reminded of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Gothics.  The nun impersonator Dona Francisca’s story of Gillian’s death from pneumonia after a car accident doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t Gillian contact Jennifer after the accident? Why didn’t she tell them she had family?  And why do the nuns say the gentian was Gillian’s favorite flower because she admired the deep blue, when Gillian was color-blind? And, yes, Jennifer’s ex-boyfriend, Stephen, shows up miraculously at the hotel in France and helps her figure out what happened, but Jennifer does most of the sleuthing on her own. And that’s why we like Stewart’s heroines.  They are smart and independent.  Of course they want (and get) romance as well.

thunder on the right stewart hodder 51y4TO2Ya+LGothic novels are for girls (I’m going for alliteration), but police procedurals are for everybody.  I recently discovered Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond series, and began with The Last Detective, the first book in the series.  As Louise Penny says in the introduction to the Soho Crime edition, “Peter Lovesey plays with perspective, with the trustworthiness of the narrator, with your loyalties as a reader.  And he does this by engaging not just your head, but your heart.  What is crime fiction, after all, without caring?”

Peter Lovesey The Last Detective 51OOXqg8dPLDetective Superintendent Peter Diamond is not particularly likable:  he  is fat and surly, there has been an inquiry about one of his investigations, he is exasperated by technology, and he is unhappy with his position with the Bath Regional Police.  He and the Assistant Detective, John Wigfull, have different philosophies:  Diamond goes for hunches, interviews, and confessions, while Wigfull is a believer in technology, technology, technology.  When the corpse of a woman is found in a lake, it takes weeks to discover her identity, despite technology.

When we first meet Peter, he is napping in the morgue after a long night.  Lovesey explains,

Peter Diamond was entitled to put his feet up. Ever since the phone beside his bed at home in Bear Flat, near Bath, had buzzed shortly after 1 a.m., he had been continuously on duty. By the time he had got to the scene at Chew Valley Lake and viewed the body, the local CID lads had set the wheels in motion, but there had remained decisions only Diamond could make, strings that only the man in charge could pull. He’d pulled more strings than Segovia.

Lovesey the last detective british $_1Finally, the corpse is identified as Geraldine Snoo, a “washed-up” soap opera actress. Geraldine’s  husband, Gregory Jackman, an English professor, had not reported her missing, though he had not seen her in three weeks.  Did he kill her, or did they just have marital problems?  The other suspect is Dana, an attractive chauffeur whose son Gregory had saved from drowning.  The two have become friends, but say they are not lovers.

Not only does Lovesey describe the workings of the jaded detective Peter Diamond’s mind, but he also details the work habits of the two suspects.  Lovesey  changes t point of view to give us a window first into Gregory’s first-person narrative (a kind of interview soliloquy), and later  Geraldine’s.  Gregory  has been harried by his department chair into organizing a Jane Austen exhibition about her life in Bath–and he is not a fan of the Janeites or of the biographical approach to literature. His attention has been on the exhibition rather than on his mentally unstable wife, who spends much of her time visiting friends.  Dana, a former taxi driver  is  a chauffeur for a CEO. The job was a godsend:  she has struggled as a single mother to pay for her son’s private school, and her boss also lets her drive the car after hours, so long as she logs the miles.  As her friendship developed with Gregory, she tracked down some letters by Jane Austen (as yet inauthenticated) for him as a gift. The letters have disappeared, and Geraldine is dead.

Fascinating!  Either Gregory or Dana could have done it and…

An excellent read!  Mysteries are so good in the summer…

10 thoughts on “In Which I Imagine Myself as a Gothic Heroine/Detective: Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right & Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective

  1. They both sound like just the sort of thing to distract the mind and body from this torturous weather. It’s as bad as freezing winter. The first does seem a riff on Radcliffe, but at the same time like Austen, enacting it. Stewart lived to a ripe old age so unlike her heroines, stayed far from danger or could cope.

    Police procedurals can be for girls. Recently on British TV they have featured heroines and been written by women. Five Days was such a mini-series: it was extraordinarily good soap opera material made to fit the structure and plot-design of a police procedural. Rachel Weisz did a political one for cinemas, and then there’s Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison. Susan Hill’s mysteries are like police procedurals by women, very gothic, but for me too nerve-wracking. I’d want to run out in the dreadful heat.


    • Yes, it still feels hot when we’re down to mid-eighties, which used to be hot but now is a cool wave! I really enjoyed both of these novels. You’re right: there are lots of women’s police procedurals these days. I was astonished when Jane Austen turned up in a working-class police procedural. Well, that’s because of the charming, posh professor.


  2. I loved Mary Stewart when I first read her back in the 1960s, when I was a teenager reading all the Gothic novels I could get my hands on. Fortunately, they were rampant then. I believe the first cover in your blog post is from that period. I’ve recently been re-reading her. I also just read The Last Detective and have subsequently bought a bunch of Lovesey’s Peter Diamond books for my Kindle when they were offered for something like $1.99 each. How could I resist?


    • I wish I could find others as good as Stewart! There were so many back in the day: Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, and many others. Somehow I always knew Stewart was the best writer, but I should look at some of these others. I need good reads when it’s hot!


  3. Oh, I can picture all those Mary Stewart novels on a shelf, their worn and slightly creased spines. I remember working through all the Phyllis Whitney mysteries on the shelves in the library, first in the kids’ section then the adults’. But I’m fairly sure they (the PW’s) wouldn’t appeal to me as much now!


    • Yes, I loved those covers! I had forgotten Phyllis Whitney’s children’s mysteries, but I read those, too. I did reread a Whit few years ago, set in Scandinavia, about an actress and her long-rejected daughter and GREAT DANGER. There are just so many by Whitney et al that one doesn’t know where to start. Stewart produced less and wrote better!


  4. “and eventually you’re running through the woods and nipping down gullies in a storm…” dressed appropriately in a floaty lavender nightgown, looking back over your left shoulder with just the right high-cheekboned horror (remember Jean Shrimpton?) I loved this genre, the great, the good and the not so good, I read a ton of them in the seventies from the public library during the summers in the days before high school summer reading listst! Dorothy Eden! Victoria Holt!


    • I do love your additions! Yes, the floaty nightgown and the cheekbones. I had to look up the beauitiful Jean Shrimpton at Wikipedia, and goodness she IS pretty! She could have been the model on those book covers! Oh, these books were so much fun–and Stewart still is.


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