This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart was published in 1964 but is as gripping now as it was fifty-four years ago.
Lucy Waring, a so-so actress licking her wounds from a flop on the London stage, visits her sister, married into a wealthy family with an estate on the Greek island of Corfu. It seems an idyllic place to recuperate.
Corfu being a playground for the British with time and money, the neighbors renting out digs on the estate get the mystery ball rolling. Dashing Godfrey Manning is taking photographs for a book; brooding Max Gale is a musician working on some weird music for a movie of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Sir Julian Gale, Max’s father, is an idol of the London stage who Lucy has revered all her acting life, now retired and maybe a bit loopy.
It’s all fine until a boy assisting Godfrey with his work goes overboard at night off Godfrey’s sailboat and is presumed drowned. Then a body washes up.
Stewart is a master of Romantic Suspense. The rich language and evocative sensory details bring Corfu alive. Written in first person point of view, the reader crawls into Lucy’s skin and feels the warm sun; the prickle of salt in her eyes as she encounters a dolphin that wants to play; tastes the terror in her mouth…and then the sweet kiss.
In my teens Stewart was probably responsible for my overdeveloped sense of the dramatic and the romantic. I loved The Moon-Spinners. Why I didn’t roar through all her books then, I don’t know, but I will now.
Mary Stewart was born with the surname Rainbow (seriously) and, after the war, married a Scottish lecturer in geology. During the war she was a teacher, having received a masters degree in English literature, and a lecturer at Durham University. Her writing career took off in the 1950s. With sparkling prose and strong characters, she was known for working the mystery story and the romance together so one brought depth to the other. Her women characters were smart and capable—something young women of the ’60s hungered to read.
I admire the special genius it takes to write a good mystery—the clues, the suspense, pacing, knotting up the mystery and then unraveling it to keep the reader rapt. Romantic Suspense is even more of a challenge, in my opinion. I’ve read examples where the romance seems incongruous, even creepy, under the circumstances. Mary Stewart crafts her stories in a way that makes sense and has the reader satisfied by the mystery and sighing aww for the couple.