It happened in Southern France

Madam, Will You Talk? - Mary Stewart

This was the author’s first published book (1955), and it shows. The writing is not nearly as polished and luminous as in her later novels. Too long descriptions dominate the narrative, making it slow, and the constant reminders that the story will be a tragedy, that there is a murderer on the loose, that the heroine will be terrified… some time later in the novel… diminish the impact of the scary events, when they finally do happen.

The heroine’s motivations are also unclear. Why does she involve herself in this sorry business in the first place? Why does she blurt to total strangers everything they need to know? Why after a car chase worthy of the best thriller writers she suddenly faints into the arms of her pursuer. One moment, he is a villain, another – he is kissing her, and that’s okay?

Too many coincidences also make the story unbelievable. Just by chance, everyone enters the same shop on the same day on the same side street in the huge city of Marseilles? By the same chance, the heroine happens to overhear every detail of the criminals’ devious plan, so she could thwart it. I can’t credit such a pileup of lucky chances.

But despite all these flaws, the typical Mary Stewart of the later novels is already present: in the exotic, sun-drenched locations of Southern France, in the charming, courageous British heroine (even though her tongue wags too freely), in the interlocking subplots of romance and mystery. The master’s stamp is unmistakable, which makes this novel interesting from the literary historian’s point of view: it shows how the writer developed her craft, where she started.

I liked it.