REVIEW: Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me to help her clarify something from this book. She needed to know a fact from it but didn’t have her copy handy. Did I have the book and could I look it up? Of course I had a copy – several, in fact, I think – and I was happy to pull it out and start reading. With the reading going smooth as silk, I was soon lost in the opening scenes. The needed fact was, unfortunately, quickly clarified and with several other books waiting for my attention and possible reviews, I reluctantly put this one aside. When I heard the news of Stewart’s passing, I began a frantic search for where I’d laid the book because, even though it’s not my favorite, I just knew I had to read it now.
Charity Selbourn and a friend from her former teaching days are on a much deserved holiday in the south of France. As Charity settles into her room at their hotel, she becomes acquainted with a young English boy and his slightly out-of-control mongrel dog named Rommel. Giving his name as David Shelley, the two chat a bit about English Romance poets and it’s at this time that Charity gets the unmistakable feeling that David has faced some awful event in his life which has aged him past the knowledge a 13 year old boy should have.
During that civilized French custom of l’heure d’aparitif, Charity sees and guesses at the nationalities, professions and details of her fellow hotel guests much to the amusement of her friend Louise. Later she meets up with one of them who fills her in on the grisly details behind David’s unhappiness. His father was accused, though acquitted, of murder. It was a Crime of Passion during which David was knocked unconscious and, as the newspaper headlines will have it, Richard Byron must be unhinged.
Since indolent Louise isn’t interested in sight-seeing, Charity has the idea of asking David’s step-mother if he can join her for a day outing. It’s then that Charity learns more than she wanted to know about Richard Byron who is hot on the trail of his son, a son who acts terrified of him and begs Charity to hide him from his father.
The plot thickens when Richard, knowing Charity must be hiding his son from him, tracks her down. A game of cat and mouse ensues with Charity embroiling herself deeper and deeper in a game of murder. Unless she discovers the truth behind these events, she just might be the next in the sights of a cold-blooded killer.
There are certain books which I find myself slogging through and some magical ones which flow like a powerful river, pulling me in and sweeping me along almost effortlessly. Most of Stewart’s books are the sweeping kind. Before I knew it, I’d read almost half the book and only put it down only for the necessities of life.
There are lots of similarities among Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense books. Usually the setting is exotic – or would have been so when the books were first written, the heroine is either young or slightly naïve, the identity of the hero might be in doubt, police presence is light to non-existent, and the heroine is quietly but quickly swept into a situation far beyond anything she’s ever encountered though the driving force behind the plot remains a mystery. These books generally feature ordinary, every day people placed in circumstances they never anticipated or are initially prepared for but the hero and, especially, heroine rise to the occasion and see justice done and wrongs righted.
Yeah, that paragraph pretty much sums this one up but let me delve into what makes it special. I love the chapter headers from famous English literary works with which Stewart would have been well familiar. In reading the various obituaries, I found it sad that she had been unable to accept positions at either Oxford or Cambridge which her intelligence had secured for her. But her knowledge shows in the characters’ intelligence. Charity casually associates Yggdrasil with a tree in the courtyard of the hotel and she and Richard can quote poetry and lines from Shakespearean plays to each other with ease.
The descriptions of the food are to die for. But along with that is the understanding of how important well prepared food is to the French soul. It’s national honor on the line with each meal and the whole is taken quite seriously. It’s a joy just to read about.
I can also see the locations in the south of France. The towns, roads and flora of the region jump off the page. I can see the heat shimmering off the scree of white rocks with harsh green juniper hanging on for dear life, the chalky dust rising from the winding roads, the prickly plants, the golden-amber shafts of sunlight slicing through shutters closed to hold out the afternoon heat with the only relief to be found in the shadows. I’ve never been to Provence but because of this book, I’ve “seen” it. I also love the descriptions of how to drive in France – full on, peddle to the metal, horn blaring and not giving an inch.
Reading Sunita’s excellent review of “Wildfire at Midnight,” brings to mind things which didn’t bother my much younger self when I initially read most of Stewart’s books. Everyone smokes like a chimney and drinks like fish albeit with a casual sophistication and elegance. Charity is not quite as naïve as other Stewart heroines being a widow who lost her RAF husband during the war and who had at one point had to support herself as a teacher. Her husband introduced her to fast cars and thankfully Charity learned to handle them and to relish speed. She does a fair amount to save herself and David and the only blunder she commits is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being stupid.
One thing my older self enjoyed more this time around is that Charity’s first husband, Johnny isn’t demonized or made into an angel. He was a man with some faults but also lots of strengths. He loved Charity and she loved him. But she hasn’t turned him into some saint nor has she sworn never to love again and put herself on a shelf to worship at his shrine. I’m also not usually one to buy into love at first sight and though that doesn’t really happen here, love does come as kind of a thunderbolt yet I still believe in it which says something about the way Stewart can convey emotions.
The men of the book tend to be on the take-charge side but then as Louise reminds Charity, she seems to like her men that way. The hero might come off as a bit high-handed even after the initial misunderstandings behind his attitude are explained. Stewart also indulges in a little stereotyping of Frenchmen though in one case it serves to help Charity along during the chase to Marseilles. The term “negro” is also used at least twice and though it doesn’t appear to me to be used as an outright insult, still the word is there and this could be a trigger.
As to the reason behind the plot, there’s no hope of guessing it early on. The details don’t begin to be revealed until the final third of the story and one character becomes a deus ex machina during the finale. Even after the villains are vanquished, an ending wrap-party is needed in order to tell the whole.
This novel appears to be a favorite of several DA readers and would, I think, serve as a good starting place for new readers as it has many of the standard elements Stewart included in several of her suspense books. If you go into it realizing that it does have some issues which date it and that the clarity of the resolution gets a bit blurry, you’ll probably do just fine with it. The evocation of the locale, the food and the characterization are more than worth the price of an admission ticket. B+
Hey, nothing wrong with Durham U! We pride ourselves on being the third university. And we have a castle. And a gorgeous cathedral. ;-)
This is one of my favorite Stewarts. Charity isn’t stupid, or weak, or malleable. She smokes, drives fast and is fairly good at running away. There is an air of menace about the hero as we aren’t sure whether he is a bad guy or not.
Now I am missing all my old Stewarts locked up in a box back in England. I keep looking for e-releases but so far no go.
I pulled my old first edition out the other day when I heard she had passed. I cracked it open last night and, like you, was immediately swept away. The words . . . the WORDS.
And I have always loved the way Charity handles missing Johnny and her growing relationship with Richard. That moment when she tells him her marriage was something she and Johnny carefully constructed for themselves. And that she would always have it but it wouldn’t stop her from living (and loving) again.
I definitely need to reread my favorite Stewart books now. And Barbara Michaels, while I’m at it. There was something so evocative about their books, an immediate atmosphere that took me elsewhere. Thanks for the memories.
I was another who cut her teeth on Mary Stewart. I went from Nancy Drew to Trixie Belden and on to Stewart. I can remember biking to the library and discovering Moonspinners, Thunder on the Right, and Nine Coaches Waiting… Then my interests shifted elsewhere and it would be decades before I rediscovered romance. Thanks for this reminder to look farther back, and for the reassurance that these stories still stand up.
I really noticed the smoking when I re-read My Brother Michael a couple of years ago. I don’t think of it as a flaw; it’s just a reminder that not that long ago, things were really different in some ways. (Like the way Fern’s brother takes a BB gun to school in Charlotte’s Web.)
I think I disagree a little about the clarity of the resolution; I love what turns out to be the ultimate nature of the mystery plot. All along, the book has been set very noticeably in the aftermath of World War II (contrast that with, say, Brat Farrar, in which the lack of echoes of World War II inspired Jo Walton to write Farthing), and the mystery resolution ties into that beautifully.
@Shaheen: Stewart seems to have done just fine with her degree. ;) And I’m still waiting for ebooks too.
@Darlynne: I love how I feel that I’m exactly where the book takes place. Not only can I see it but I can sense it and almost reach into the page and touch it.
@etv13: Speaking of aftermath of WWII, I wondered if her Riley would have been pre-war or post-war. I had some fun this weekend looking at images and trying to pick which year and model Charity would have been tooling along the roads on. This one?
@Mzcue: Yep, the library is where I first saw and got interested in her books. I’ve been trying to remember which was the first one I read. But once I got going, I had to read them all.
@Angie: Sigh, yes on the romances here both past and present.
@Shaheen: Mary Stewart’s novels are available in ebook form ( with some fabulously retro Vogue/Harpers Bazaar type covers) on Amazon UK..
I also read a lot of Mary Stewart as a teenager and 40 years later still have a number of her books on my shelf, although it is some time since i reread them. I do remember was always able to lose myself in the worlds she created.
Somehow I missed reading this one but thanks for your review – I have just odered it from the library.
I read Stewart after I read all that I could find of Victoria Holt. The two authors often get compared to each other (well in my mind they were). I think Stewart’s stories had more staying power though. My first book by her was The Airs Above the Ground and I loved it and had to read more but didn’t. Eventually, I did pick up Nine Coaches Waiting because I’d heard so much about it. Enjoyed it. Madam, Will You Talk ?has been heralded as her best work but I’ve yet to read it. I’d planned to read one of her older books this year and this one seems like the perfect one to pick up so thanks.
As a teen, I devoured all the romantic suspense greats of that era: Stewart, MacInnes, Holt, Whitney, Michaels, etc. Of all of them, Stewart is most frequently reread. In fact, Thornyhold, This Rough Magic, and Wildfire at Midnight rank high on my comfort read list. I still have my ancient paperbacks, but it makes me crazy that they’re not available as ebooks.
This was a great review of MWYT. (I may have to do a library run since I know my copy is in storage.) You really nailed the bit about the common themes, too.
For other old-timey romantic suspense aficionados, I just wanted to add that Jane Aiken Hodge’s books are now being released as digital. Yay.
I’ve said it before. This is one of my favorite Stewarts. I love the car chase across Provence. The way she uses what she learned from Johnny. Of course, she’d have the new Riley. She’s a well-off widow. And Richard drives a Bentley…. Lots of hot cars to drool over.
Mary Stewart’s novels make me want to travel the way people traveled then. Sigh. Such a sense of place and atmosphere. In this particular book one can really see the poise and class a lot of her heroines have.
The ebooks are available on the australian kindle store as well, although at a price that makes my eyes water. I have never been sure who made the decision to charge such prices, especially when the books themselves aren’t in print, but it makes it hard to justify buying them, as I accumulated my hard copies through second hand sales at rarely more than $1 or $2.
But now I want to read this, and my copy is on the other side of the world….
I have a few of Ms Stewart’s tittles in the humongous TBR meandering mountain range. Hopefully I’ll soon read them.
What I won’t do is to try to buy them via amazon us–no kindle edition that I could see, and the print prices are beyond ridiculous.
Oh dratsab (to quote Bujold)! Now I live in the US, Amazon.co.uk won’t let me buy digital … Even when I have gift card money.
I suppose if they are digital in one market they will eventually come here too.
@Jayne I’ve never read a Mary Stewart. Is the romance aspect of this one satisfying? Or is it more a suspense/mystery with little or no romance?
I am another huge fan of Mary Stewart. I do think it’s important to remember when she was writing, and not to judge adversely for things which were absolutely commonplace then. I agree that the sense of place which she always manages so well is amazing, and has predisposed me to lots of places! I’ve certainly enjoyed following in the tracks of some of her heroines (and wishing that some changes hadn’t taken place).
@Kaetrin: In most all Mary Stewart romantic suspense books, the romance is secondary. It’s there but it generally doesn’t become a more important part of the plot until at least the second half of the book. And even then it’s more understated than a modern romantic suspense book.
@HJ: Cool. Where have you been, if I might ask?
Great review of one of my favourite Mary Stewart books! I only discovered her a few ago and devoured her backlist over a couple of weeks.
I love how she balances the developing romance with the unfolding mystery. And as I’m a sucker for books set in France, I have a particular affection for ‘Madam, Will You Talk?’
I’ve only read one Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, and I agree with what everyone here says about the wonderful prose and the sense of time and place. One thing that really struck me whilst reading this thread, as it referred to books I’ve never read, is the imaginative and memorable titles of her books.
So many romance novels today have meaningless generic titles that are wildly anachronistic in their nods to modern catchphrases, movie titles and so on. Then there are the repetitive titles in a series or the flowery song lyric style titles. They could all be interchanged with no ill effect, since they mostly bear no particular reference to the contents of the books.
Not that the title really makes any difference to my enjoyment of a book or the likelihood of me buying it, but these Mary Stewart novels all seem to have thoughtful, individual titles which make me intrigued about their storylines and, I would imagine, make it easier to distinguish between them. I have many a time tried to recall the title of a book I’ve read, often not very long ago at all, and drawn a complete blank because the title was so meaningless.
I just wish romance books had titles worthy of proper novels, that’s all.
@oceanjasper: What a great point you make about Stewart’s titles. It hadn’t quite broken through to my awareness as I was looking over her novels yesterday, but your post jogged the realization.There are a lot of vapid titles about, I agree. And some have no more to do with a particular book than the miscast models on its cover. Unlike yourself, I do find that titles affect my decision to purchase a book, or even to read reviews about it. Stewart’s titles are so intriguing that I find myself wanted to reread her novels to rediscover how the titles fit the tales.
One of my favorite Mary Stewart novels! To this day, I credit my love of travel with a steady diet of romantic suspense novels in my teens. I really, REALLY miss this type of book. Today’s romantic suspense is a completely different animal, with a hero who’s a cop (or some variation thereof) and, plenty of time, regardless of the danger, for our hero & heroine to indulge in sex. Yep, the genre has changed, all right, but not, at least in my opinion, for the better. :-(