Camilla Haven is a 25-year-old Latin teacher on a one-woman pilgrimage to the sites of classical Greece. When we first meet her, she has ‘done’ Mykonos, Delos and Crete, and is sitting in an Athenian café planning a final jaunt to Delphi. The journey has been memorable but not especially eventful: ‘Nothing ever happens to me.‘
But then something does. In a case of mistaken identity and linguistic incompetence, Camilla is left with some car keys and a hire-car to deliver to a Mr Simon in Delphi.
The man who gives her the keys describes it as a matter of life and death. This, plus boredom, and the knowledge that she’s short of the money she needs to get her to Delphi, persuade her to drive the car into the mountains.
Camilla’s not a practised driver, and her hair-raising drive to Delphi on the hazardous Greek roads is described with a mix of action and humour:
All things considered, people were very forgiving. The only really unpleasant person was the man who spat on the bonnet as I came hesitatingly out from behind a stationary bus. There was no need for such a display of temper. I’d hardly touched him.
Camilla finally gets stuck in the little town of Arachova outside Delphi, but is rescued by a fellow English visitor named Simon Lester.
‘I thought him good-looking;’ says (the recently-single) Camilla, ‘a thinnish sun-browned face, black brows, straight nose, and a hard mouth.’
The locals behave oddly around Simon, which raises a few alarm bells, and he claims no knowledge of a hire-car, the woman who supposedly hired it, or any matters of life and death. Still, he seems kind and Camilla lets him take her the rest of the way to Delphi.
It’s not long before the thoroughly smitten Camilla discovers more about Simon. His older brother Michael died in Greece in 1944, whilst working as a liaison to the various Greek resistance groups. Michael’s last letter implied he had something else going on, and Simon suspects his death was down to this mystery rather than to the war. A visit to Michael’s friend Stephanos reveals more of the real story.
Simon is soon wrapped up in a treasure hunt which drags in his artist-housemate Nigel, the highly sexed French girl Danielle and the thuggish Dimitrios. Camilla joins in for fairly obvious reasons of her own.
Compared with the domestic-thrillerish Nine Coaches Waiting, this is perhaps a more ‘masculine’ adventure story. Certainly it is more driven by plot than character, and Mary Stewart shows she can also make a good job of this.
She sows the seeds of suspicion very effectively. For starters, it’s never quite clear that Simon is trustworthy:
There was that queer reserve, too, in Simon’s manner; there was Arachova; and the way he had shelved my question as to what he was doing in Delphi. The thing had ceased to be a slightly awkward puzzle. It was fast becoming a mystery, with Simon Lester at its centre.
She can also manufacture tension out of almost anything, as she proves with Camilla’s drive to Delphi – overtaking a bus has never felt so stressful. She can also, unexpectedly for a ‘romantic suspense’ novelist, handle a fight scene.
Her Greeks are perhaps a little stereotypical – tough old shepherds, beautiful but flashy young men, old ladies in headscarves – but then I’ve only been to Greece twice so what do I know? She certainly conveys the atmosphere of the countryside well:
Like a blast the heat met me. the sun was wheeling over now towards the west, full across the valley from my window, and valley and plain were heavy with sleepy heat. The tide of olives had stilled itself, and even the illusion of coolness created by those rippling grey leaves was gone.
(The classical heritage of Greece feels a little laboured in the first half, but that simply reflects Camilla’s unflagging romanticism.)
This is a very enjoyable read, possibly best enjoyed on a sunny beach holiday rather than a series of commutes in a very wintery East Anglia. Camilla is likeable and extremely brave, despite her own misgivings on that front.
I do have a quibble with the cover. I get that this is a book by a lady, and there’s a lady in it – in fact there are two ladies, but it is, after all, a thriller.
Still, given the same brief, a less talented artist might have come up with this:
See also: Nine Coaches Waiting
Final destination: Back to the library
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.