The Moonspinners, Mary Stewart, used, various editions, $3.50. (Original publication date 1962). Various editions, used, $3.50.(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).
People don’t really write like Mary Stewart anymore. She’s an old fashioned pro who has been able to crank out work through a long career—she’s now 93 and still alive, to my surprise. One of her books, The Crystal Cave, is a personal favorite of mine and a real classic of it’s kind. She writes what is called Romantic Suspense—other practitioners would include Mabel Seely, Charlotte Armstrong, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart. It’s almost as specific an American art form as the hard boiled detective novels originated by Chandler and Hammett, and every bit as enjoyable.
Romantic suspense is still being written (see Mary Higgins Clark) but it’s of course been mutated and modified over the years. Lots of the books we now refer to as cozies have a romantic element. What sets these pioneering ladies apart from contemporary series books is the fact that most of their books are standalones. Charlotte Armstrong has a few books with the same character (as does Rinehart) but she’s really better known for her standalones, especially for A Dram of Poison which won an Edgar for best novel.
Anyway the languid, and at the same time business like, method Stewart employs in telling her story has a distinct mid-century feel. There are no cell phones or computers; the character in the book, Nicola Ferris, can disappear from her job in Athens and simply vanish. She’s on the island of Crete, there to meet a favorite aunt in a tiny village called Agios Georgios. Her aunt, a plant expert, is there to look at native species in their natural habitat and get some samples. Nicola comes a day ahead of time, and there the trouble begins.
Everything that happens when considered rationally could be called unlikely, but Stewart makes the whole thing seem inevitable. Nicola, taking a stroll through the countryside and stopping for lunch, is ambushed by a man she takes to be some kind of shepard. The man, whose name turns out to be Lambis, takes her forcibly to a kind of hut where there’s another young man, obviously injured and feverish. This young man, Mark, has been injured in a shootout he and his brother and Lambis stumbled upon. The problem, then, is twofold: Mark’s 15 year old brother, Colin, is missing; and Mark is so weak he can’t be moved.
Nicola very capably takes over and sends Lambis to town for supplies. She cleans Mark up and gets some food into him; by morning he seems better and the two repair to a nearby hidden lookout to watch for Lambis’ return. Nicola, of course, is expected both at the hotel in the village and by her aunt—the two men urge her to resume her vacation and forget they ever existed. This, of course, is impossible.
Nicola does go down to the village, to check into the hotel, and find her aunt. The suspense comes from the fact that surely someone in the tiny village—if not every soul there—is involved in Mark’s shooting and Colin’s disappearance. With the skill of a pro, Stewart builds her story—her description of the Greek countryside is lovely and poetic, and it’s fine background for the growing fear that both Nicola, and eventually her aunt, begin to feel.
While I wouldn’t call this book exactly gritty—what book using the words "clean frock" can be called gritty?—but the story is bare and stripped down and told in a very workmanlike fashion, with a few terrific twists thrown in at the end. The twists are thrown in almost casually—they’re not spectacular, but they’re enough to make you gasp in surprise as you keep feverishly turning the pages. Hitchcock’s film of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart comes closest in spirit to this novel, much closer than the actual film adaptation (starring Haley Mills) that was made from the book. If you’re in the mood for a perfectly well told story, look no further. Mary Stewart has always been a master, and this book is no exception.
"For some reason I cannot analyze, the sight of the big white bird, strange to me; the smell of the lemon flowers; the clicking of the mill-sails and the sound of spilling water; the sunlight dappling through the leaves on the white anenomes with their lamp-black centres; and, above all, my first real sight of the legendary White Mountains...all this seemed to rush together into a point of powerful magic, happiness striking like an arrow, with one of those sudden shocks of joy that are so physical, so precisely marked, that one knows the exact moment at which the world changed.” —Mary Stewart, The Moonspinners
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