British author, Mary Stewart was a pioneer of romantic-suspense novels and appeared regularly on bestseller lists at a time when Alfred Hitchcock was producing the kind of glamorous and colourful movies that attracted the likes of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant.
Exotic locations were a feature of her work, as were smart, highly educated young women thrust into daring adventures from which they’d emerge intact and happily romantically involved. Strong women with good hearts were her “anti-namby-pamby” reaction, as she called it, to the “silly heroine types” of conventional contemporary thrillers, that might be told, “it’s imperative you don’t open the door for anybody,” then immediately lay down a welcome mat during a power-cut to any creep wielding wire-cutters.
One such novel was This Rough Magic, a mid-sixties tale with plenty of romance, lashings of intrigue and a soupçon of golden lipstick.
The story surrounds an out of work actress, Lucy Waring, who travels to the idyllic Ionian Island of Corfu to spend time with her sister and contemplate her future. Surprisingly, paradise transforms to a place of sinister doings when a smuggler washes up dead in a nearby cove and then a young Greek guy drowns off the coast of Albania, – both seemingly unconnected. Told from Lucy’s point of view, the reader’s kept in a state of tension while she attempts to discover the identity and motive of the wrong-doer while avoiding communist spies and hostile thespians with silenced rifles and simultaneously making friends with an anthropomorphic dolphin and cultivating a relationship with same hostile thespian.
Stewart’s novels always include a lot of literary allusions and references and this book is no exception. It’s been suggested that Shakespeare based the island in The Tempest on Corfu and this is a theme that runs right through the novel, with Tempest quotes at the beginning of each chapter. Even the title of the novel, This Rough Magic, is a line from the play and one imagines that among Stewart’s readers at her peak were many well-read women who’d maybe had a taste of freedom in the wartime era before being shoved and padlocked into post-war conformity.
One of Stewart’s many strengths was her ability to incorporate setting into her books as a key element of a story. Her settings are exotic and a reflection of her many travels around the world with her husband, Frederick Stewart. Her descriptions are so evocative and compelling that they blend seamlessly into the story, and enhance plot and character in a way that is unique to Mary Stewart novels.
And what about those retro covers? I think they’re gorgeous to look at and put me in mind of those glamorous and colorful movie posters when the likes of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were headliners.