Sunday 13 November 2022

CBR14 Book 44: "Madam, Will You Talk?" by Mary Stewart

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 3 stars

CBR14 Bingo: Question (the book's title is a question and there is a central murder mystery where the identity of the murderer is in question)

Young widow Charity Selborne is on holiday in the south of France with her friend Louise and they really have little planned except to enjoy the good food, nice drinks, beautiful scenery, and long drives. In Avignon, Charity befriends a young English boy who is also staying at the hotel, offering to take him with her on tours of the local tourist spots, as his stepmother doesn't seem inclined to do so. She certainly wouldn't have expected this act of friendship would get her embroiled in the final act of a complicated criminal conspiracy, involving attempted murder, actual murder, kidnapping, and more. 

Once Charity meets the boy's imperious and brooding father, who may very well be a psychotic murderer, she finds herself fleeing through multiple French towns to get away from the man, who is determinedly seeking the whereabouts of his son. Charity is worried for the safety of the boy and keeps trying to get away from the possible madman, who seems relentless in his pursuit of her. Once Charity gets sick of running and furiously confronts her pursuer instead, they actually sit down and talk and she realises just how much danger the boy and his arrogant father are in. Charity and the framed man begin to work together to find out exactly what the vast plot consists of, why someone tried to frame Richard Byron (the suspected murderer) for a crime he didn't commit and then when he was acquitted, murder him instead. Why are the conspirators now using Byron's son as bait to get him to come to France? Is Charity going to be their next victim, now that she's involuntarily gotten involved?

A while back, there were a ton of Mary Stewart's mystery novels on sale online. As any e-book under $2.99 that I haven't actively heard bad things about is more or less a must-buy for me, I now have a fairly large selection of her books. When I needed a book that fits into the Question square of this year's Bingo, it seemed like a good candidate. I hadn't realised that this was in fact Mary Stewart's debut novel, which has become somewhat of a classic and laid the groundwork for her long career as a mystery writer in the second half of the 20th Century.

For fear of spoiling a nearly 70-year-old book, the romance subplot in this book is absolutely bonkers. When Richard Byron first meets Charity Selborne and realises that she knows where his son is, he believes her to be part of the criminal conspiracy that has been plaguing him for ages. He manhandles her, threatens her, calls her a b*tch (so charming), and is in general very unpleasant. She outsmarts him, but their paths keep crossing until he literally chases her through the south of France for several days like some sort of post-World War Terminator. Charity, believing the rumours she's heard that Byron is most likely a psychotic murderer who got acquitted on a technicality, in France to possibly do his own son harm, has no intention of revealing his son's whereabouts to the lunatic. 

Charity is clever and plucky and drives like a fiend, so she escapes him several times until she gets fed up, stops being afraid, and gets angry instead. She yells at him for several minutes, then almost collapses with exhaustion, whereupon he apparently realises 1) that he's been an utter beast for chasing this woman for days and making her very afraid for her own safety and 2) that he totally and completely loves her. Remember, this is after three days of believing her to be part of a criminal plot against him and party in keeping his only child from him. How does her heroine react to his declarations of love? Does she slap him and tell him to get as far away from her as possible? Of course not, silly, she swoons in his arms and apparently returns the affections of a man she believed was an unhinged murderer until earlier the same day. So romantic. The 1950s, people, it was a different time. 

Another way in which it is clear that we have come a long way is how much the characters smoke. They pretty much chain-smoke their way through this story. I'm surprised the kid, David doesn't light up a cigarette when he's off gambolling with his dog. Seriously, when Byron first encounters Charity, and she's a bit out of sorts because of the hot afternoon and thinking about her dead husband (he was shot down during the War), he insists that she have a cigarette to feel better. Because obviously nicotine and tobacco are so healthful. There's mention of smoking with breakfast. At one point, there's a mention of an ashtray on the nightstand of a hotel bed. So glad this is not the norm anymore.

While the romance is preposterously insta-love (SPOILER! They get married less than two weeks after first meeting one another), the actual criminal conspiracy plot is pretty clever. I also really liked Stewart's writing style. David and his loyal pooch did smack quite a bit of plot moppetude, but the descriptions of the various Roman ruins and other interesting sites that Charity visits and the mention of the food were all great. My favourite thing about the novel was probably our heroine herself. Charity is an intelligent and capable woman. She mourns her husband, but not to an excessive degree. She's brave, clever, kind, and drives like an utter fiend. 

I also really liked her friendship with Louise, who accompanies her to France. The friendship between the two women reminded me a lot of myself and my BFF Lydia. Louise is described as plump and friendly, and while Charity is off in the sweltering heat of the French afternoons to explore Roman ruins and archeological sites, Louise prefers to stay back at the hotel, reading in the shade or relaxing by a river, painting. These are vacation goals I can get behind (although I wouldn't even bother with the painting. I would just laze about in a shady back garden, drinking iced grape juice and reading my books. Possibly while snacking on some sort of delicious French pastry). It's also highly likely that Lydia would drag me along with her when going off to visit ruins and other sites of note, exclaiming all the while about how much I'm enjoying myself (whether I am or not). 

I guess starting with the earliest of Mary Stewart's books is a good idea, I've been assured that a lot of her writing is very good, and with some reservations, I also enjoyed this one. So if her writing gets more polished and sophisticated as her career progresses, I suspect I will also enjoy the others of hers I now have waiting for me in my digital library. 

Judging a book by its cover: This very minimalist cover, where you barely even see the heroine (suitably seen behind the wheel of a car) appeals to me. The blue skies give a feeling of summer and I could do with some of that as each day gets progressively darker here up north. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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