Monday, January 23, 2012

A Touch of Nostalgia: Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney & Victoria Holt

An Appreciation by Doris
Do you remember an author whose books drew you to a favorite genre? Jeanne handed me a Mystery Scene magazine this morning and the first thing I read was about Mary Stewart. I thought Ms. Stewart had passed away a long time ago so I was pleased to learn she is still very much with us. The rush of memory of how much I loved her books sent me to the computer to write this. Because of Mary Stewart and two other wonderful mystery writers of similar style, I loved reading and developed a passion for mysteries that guides what I read even today.
     I lived with my grandparents in a small rural community on and off during my childhood and teen years. My grandfather and I were very close; we often sat on the big front porch at the end of the day and just enjoyed watching the world go by. My grandmother Lillie and I were also very close, and we shared a love that has lasted all my life—reading. To benefit that little farming community my grandmother took a small front room in the house and made it into a community library. Every couple of weeks the van from the Watauga Regional Library would come and deliver new books. I rushed to sort through the books and shelve them for Mamaw because that gave me first crack at the three women who would shape my love for mysteries: Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney.
     I learned to read very young—Aunt June was confined to bed because of rheumatic fever and she kept herself entertained by teaching me to read when I was not quite four. There were always books around the house because of my grandmother’s love for reading, and no one ever told me I could not read something because it was either too mature for me or too hard. Books by the Grand Dames of Mysteries as I called the three ladies were intriguing, exotic because they often were set in far off places, and the stories flowed. I would sit with my Papaw and read him sections of Nine Coaches Waiting or My Brother Michael. I don’t know that he really enjoyed the books, but he enjoyed having me beside him reading to him and I felt so important! When I first read The Crystal Cave, Stewart’s first novel in her Merlin of the Arthurian legends trilogy—a Christmas gift from my grandmother that still sits in a special place on my bookcase—I was enthralled. It is still, for a number of reasons, one of my all-time favorite books and it has been lovingly reread many times.
     Phyllis Whitney’s books had the island locations or adventures in places had only heard about in my geography class. Mystery on the Island of Skye, Moonflower, and others gave me hours of escape into a world that fascinated me and took me far way from East Tennessee. When my mom married a career soldier and we lived in Europe, I finally got to see some of those places and castles Ms. Whitney had described so clearly in her books.
     Eleanor Hibbert writing as Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Philippa Carr, Eleanor Burford, and other pen names may have been the reason I majored in British literature in college. Her historical fiction including the Mary, Queen of Scotts series and her Plantagenet series were such richly drawn, richly characterized novels about England and its royal history. All that romance, adventure, and remarkable characters—how could a youngster not fall in love with all the pageantry?
     Ms. Hibbert/Holt and Ms. Whitney are both gone now and Ms. Stewart is ninety-five years old and no longer writing for publication, but their books are still stalwarts on our shelves. Unfortunately it is often just our older patrons who check them out. Today’s mysteries are very different than the Grand Dames’, but these women writers along with a few others created the genre that has proven so successful for the Catherine Coulters, Janet Evanovichs, and Tami Hoags of today. The Grand Dames wrote for a simpler time when graphic sex or violence was not the mainstay of a mystery, and many of our younger readers are really missing great stories and characters because the time for the Grand Dames is believed to have passed. I plan to reread some favorites from Stewart, Whitney, and Holt and remember why I fell in love with mysteries. Come join me and take a little trip back in time!
Do you have a favorite author who hooked you on reading a genre? Share with us, please.

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