Reviewed by Jeanne
Charity is on a trip to Provence with her friend Louise, trying to distract herself. Her RAF pilot husband Johnny was shot down in the War and Charity is still coming to terms with the loss. She’s a strong woman who isn’t wallowing in grief but who is getting on with her life as best she can. Louise wants to read and paint, while Charity wants to visit the local historical sites: Roman ruins, old castles, and such.
At the hotel she meets David, a charming little British boy who is there with his stepmother. She soon realizes there is something a bit wrong with this set-up: David seems troubled. She begins to hear stories that his father is a murderer who may be stalking the boy. Recklessly, Charity decides she is going to protect David at all costs and is plunged into a breathtaking game of cat and mouse.
Recently, several members of the DorothyL mystery group discussed Mary Stewart and what a strong impression she had made on so many of them growing up, with her exotic locales and strong heroines. I was embarrassed to realize that while I had read and thoroughly enjoyed her Merlin/Arthur books (Crystal Cave, Hollow Hills, Last Enchantment, etc.) I had not read any in the genre for which she was best known, romantic suspense. I decided to rectify that at once.
Madam, Will You Talk? was Stewart’s first novel, and was an instant hit when it was published in 1954. She went on to write several more novels, including The Moon-Spinners which was turned into a Disney movie. The writing is lovely and graceful, even when the situation is dire. Charity is a wonderful character, a smart, mature woman who isn’t afraid to step up when the situation calls for action. She loves history and poetry—she and Louise were once taught together—so she’s able to beautifully convey the setting. That is a real strength to this book and apparently her others as well: the ability to vividly describe a location without dragging the plot down. She also peppers the story with quotations and literary allusions but again is able to do so while advancing the story.
I also enjoyed the unadulterated 1950s flavor. Contemporary writers who set a story in that time period can’t help but bring a twenty-first century view to it. They try to unobtrusively explain attitudes and items on the assumption that modern audiences won’t have a clue—or in some cases, to show off how much research they’ve done (my sneaking suspicion). Since the book was actually written in the 1950s, Stewart is under no such compunction. In a modern retelling, the Riley that Charity drives so nimbly and expertly would be explained as a particular brand of British Motorcar from a company that began life as the Bonnick Cycle Company in the late 1800s. Did I need to know that? Nope, I just accepted that it was a car and moved on. Nor did the author have to omit or make excuses for people smoking constantly and imbibing. (I’m reminded of a story about the TV series Mad Men which drew comment for the amount of smoking and drinking that went on. When someone connected with the show spoke with a retired ad man who had worked in that era, the ad man said it was all fairly accurate except that there was even more drinking and smoking.) The plot twists and turns as Charity tries to figure out who to trust and, more importantly, who NOT to trust. There are exciting car chases through the villages and countryside, around winding streets and into back alleys. I’m not usually one for car chases but these manage to be both tense and interesting. The thing I liked least about the book? The title. It sounds so formal, not reflective of the lively story. How's that for a minor quibble?
For me, the book certainly passes the test of time and I look forward to reading more by Mary Stewart.