I was barely thirteen when I first read Mary Stewart’s Madam Will You Talk. It set the bar high for romantic suspense for me—and all these years later, it still works.
It’s got what for me is a perfect blend of romantic suspense and plotty suspense, which reinforce one another—emotions and action—which make for a compelling page-turner.
I found it in the library after my mom turned me on to the Gothics that were popular at the time—Victoria Holt being the queen after a long and stellar ancestry begun by Charlotte Bronte, and Mrs. Edgeworth before her. But I soon tired of spooky houses and frightened governesses in charge of fey kids, and the craggy-faced, dangerous guy she ends up married to. Or the wussy guy who seems oblivious as the evil housekeeper, or conniving Other Woman, tries to off our heroine. (I only liked the first two or three chapters of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—and pretty much hated the rest.)
Not that there isn’t a Byronic hero in Madam Will You Talk. He’s there, all right—his name is even Byron, and just so you know he’s dangerous, almost the first thing he does is grab our heroine, ordinary widow Charity Selbourne, by the wrist, and call her a beautiful little bitch. Yeah, definitely an eye-roller nowadays, and there are other signs of the times: everyone smokes like a chimney, drinks a lot, and Freudian buzzwords show up as character insight.
To counterbalance the beautiful bitchery, there’s the setting, the exquisitely described South of France. The story takes place during summer in the fifties, and Stewart paints in glimpses of Europe’s layers of history (much of it bloody) in the aftermath of World War II. The long shadow of that war lies over this story.
It’s not just history that tantalizes the reader: in the first four pages, there are references to Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Kipling, Norse epics, and the famous Chinese painter Ma Yuan. None of this is thrust in as awkward wodges. The references are so much a part of the characters that my thirteen year old self (who only recognized the Alice reference) never flagged in attention or confusion. But in after-years, each reference lit up as I discovered them. (I laughed out loud as a college student when I realized that there was a clue in the reading matter of a minor character: nobody reading Little Gidding is likely to be a murdering dirtbag.)
The strength of the story, though, is in that balance of romantic tension and plot tension, as Charity befriends a boy who seems shadowed by a burden no kid should have to bear. Charity bestirs herself to save the boy from a murderer, which eventually leads her to race through the South of France in a couple of the best car chases I have ever read.
I enjoy stories featuring badass women, but I really like stories like this one, in which an ordinary woman discovers her own agency through handling extraordinary circumstances. She does it with wit and intelligence, which is what got me to reread it over the decades since.
I would love to find more such stories. I am sure, with all the great stuff being published, that there are more out there. But so far I haven’t had much luck in finding them. My problem with many of the books labeled ‘romantic suspense’ now is that so many seem to be about women escaping serial killers, a storyline that has no appeal for me. Serial killers are boring–they kill people. Usually women. I don’t want to read about them in the news, much less in fiction: if one shows up, my impulse is to skip to the end, until they are either dead or in jail. And tons of detail about police procedure or criminal profiling isn’t my cuppa.
My preference is for conflicts of wit and skill, not the bludgeon of threatened horror.
Another problem I’ve encountered with super-duper badass women (or men) is also that sometimes they read like motorized muscle suits. There is the high octane action, everyone screaming and fighting, blood and guts a-flying, and then . . . either super-charged erotic encounters, or everyone sitting around talking clues until the next fight. I am drawn toward characters whose lives seem interesting even when they are not kicking butt and taking names.
Mary Stewart found the balance that appealed most to me, but maybe this is my age showing, and this sort of story doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. On the other hand, I could be missing some great stuff, because these days it’s impossible to read everything.
Discussion and suggestions welcome!