At the end of February I posted a Mary Stewart quote that I like. When I wrote it, I thought that it might be good to make this a regular event, and perhaps aim to post a ‘quote of the week’ (or month). But I do have some self-awareness and I know I’m just not that organised. So, using all my powers of alliteration, last time I coined ‘Mary on Monday’ so that I can post quotes or excerpts ‘regularly’ on any Monday that works. And today works!
Recently I have been rummaging around Madam, Will You Talk?, looking for quotes on Avignon, Marseille and so on. In doing so, I also found this passage, from when Charity is in Marseille and worried sick that something sinister has happened:
The garage offered the only real hiding-place, and I slid into its black cave like a ghost…Perhaps he – his body… I thrust the thought back into the limbo whence it peered and grimaced, and tried to discipline my thoughts. He was not dead: he could not be dead… with a little sob of a prayer that was not so much a supplication as a threat to the Almighty, I turned to leave… and found myself staring down at a dark stain that spread hideously on the concrete floor.
It gleamed faintly under the oblique light from the office window. Its surface was thick and slimy. I don’t know how long it took me to realize that it was only oil. My flesh seemed to shrink on my bones as I bent down, put a testing finger into the viscous pool, and sniffed at it. Oil. Nothing worse. I was straightening up when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something on the floor of the garage. It had fallen behind an oil-drum, and, if I had not stooped, I should not have seen it. It showed squarish and pale in the shadows.
Now was the time, I thought, with the tiny remnant of irony that insisted on denying the realities of my situation – now was the time to discover the monogrammed handkerchief with the message scrawled in blood – or oil, amended the other part of my mind, rather hurriedly. I picked up the pale object, which was, at any rate, certainly not a handkerchief, because it was hard, oblong, and about a quarter of an inch thick. It felt as if it could be a book.
It was a book.
I love how Mary Stewart ratchets up suspense, and more importantly points to the emotions of her first-person narrator, for example by having Charity describe herself as like a ghost and the garage as like a black cave∗, thereby letting the reader know how fearful she is. The ‘dark stain that spread hideously’ makes the reader think of blood, and we feel relief as we discover with Charity that it is only oil, ‘nothing worse’. We know that Charity is afraid that blood has been spilled in violence even although she has not voiced the word blood at this stage: we are given the impression that she is shying away from the word in fear. This is reinforced in the next paragraph when she mentally amends blood to oil. We are not merely shown what a terrifying situation Charity is in: we feel the terror with her. Such is the quality of Mary Stewart’s writing.
I also like how she plays with classic/clichéd thriller and detective fiction motifs: the dropped clue, the initials that betray the owner of the incriminating item. Mary Stewart does this openly, with ‘irony’, and there is a fabulous duality here, she is pointing out that this is an overused staple of the genre at the very same time as she employs it herself. The book is a clue in the same way as a mongrammed handkerchief would have been: Charity is convinced that she knows who left the clue and why. I really admire how Mary Stewart is able to give a knowing nod here and coolly use this trope. By doing so she fuses the rational and irrational, logic and sensation, to convey Charity’s intelligence as well as her feelings of fear.
What do you think of this book extract? I’d love to know your thoughts.
∗Here we have another Mary Stewart reference to caves, a common theme as I noted in my post More about My Brother Michael:
- Mary Stewart notes that the place-name Delphi means hollow mountain. I have seen it translated as hollow or womb. Have you considered how often caves and, ahem, Hollow Hills, appear in her novels (and novella)?