Hmm. Mary Stewart. Turns up twice in the CWA Top 100 (as often as Rendell, McBain and Highsmith). Yet I’d never even heard of her before I started reading my way through the list. ‘Romantic suspense’ – not a genre I’ve sampled. And it’s fair to say I’d never pick up this book based on the cover, and certainly not with this blurb:
‘After a rather drab existence in an English orphanage Linda Martin is appointed governess to the nine-year-old owner of the Château Valmy in the French Alps. During little Philippe’s minority the estates are being managed by his crippled uncle Leon, and Léon’s handsome son Raoul.’
So, what would I make of this ‘wonderful novel of suspense and intrigue’?
Linda’s new life is ostensibly idyllic – ‘The shadow of the Constance Butcher Home for Girls dwindled and shrank to nothing in the Savoyard light’ – but it is clear from the very beginning that Philippe’s life is uncomfortable, leading Linda to draw parallels with her time in the orphanage:
‘As a cosy family home the Chateau Valmy certainly took some beating. The Constance Butcher also ran.’
The move from awkwardness to actual threat is gradual but seems inevitable once the characters have been established.
Linda is not quite the ideal heroine. She has lied to get the governess job in the first place, concealing her French heritage because the Valmys wanted an English native. She only comes clean once lying has become untenable. She gossips and is smug and (reading between the lines) a little vain. However, she genuinely loves Philippe and, once she suspects his life is in danger after a near-miss ‘hunting accident’, she moves heaven and earth to protect him.
Raoul is handsome and strong and cruel and drives his car masterfully and is exactly the sort of love interest I’d expect to find in a Mills and Boon novel. What saves him as a character is the question of his complicity in the threat to Philippe, moving him from one-dimensional love interest to something more complex. The Linda-Raoul romance is coloured by this complexity and by their differing levels of experience.
‘For a first kiss it was, I suppose, a fairly shattering experience. And certainly not such stuff as dreams are made on … If Cinderella was out, so decidedly was Prince Charming…’
However without question, Philippe’s Uncle Léon, wheelchair-bound, arrogant and self-centred, master if not officially lord of all he surveys, is the most memorable character, trundling in soundlessly like a pantomime villain and dominating everybody he speaks to (except Raoul obviously).
‘I heard nothing. I turned quickly. Even then it was a second or two before I saw the shadow detach itself from the other shadows and slide forward… But. once there, Léon de Valmy was an object for no-one’s pity; one saw simply a big, handsome, powerful man who from his wheel-chair managed without speaking a word to obliterate everybody else in the hall… Then I told myself sharply not to be a fool. Just because the man looked like Milton’s ruined archangel and chose to appear in the hall like the Demon King through a trapdoor, it didn’t necessarily mean that I had to smell sulphur.’
Nine Coaches Waiting was very much better than I suspected, but ultimately not my cup of tea.
Final destination: Sold on Green Metropolis