Madam, Will You Talk (1955) by Mary Stewart

Book Review by George S: Madam, Will You Talk (1955) was Mary Stewart’s first published novel, and it is obviously the work of someone with a gift for thriller-writing.

It begins in Avignon, where Charity Selbourne, a youngish widow, is enjoying a relaxing holiday with a teacher friend, but Mary Stewart keeps the exposition from being tedious with foreboding remarks like this:

How was I to know, that lovely quiet afternoon, that most of the actors in the tragedy were at that moment assembled in this neat, unpretentious little Provençal hotel? All but one, that is, and he, with murder in his mind, was not so very far away, moving, under that blazing southern sun, in the dark circle of his own personal hell. A circle that narrowed, gradually, upon the Hôtel Tistet-Védène, Avignon.

Among the guests at the hotel are a glamorous woman and her stepson. We discover that they had been a the centre of a sensational tragedy. Her husband had been arrested for the murder of a man apparently her lover, but had been acquitted because of a lack of clinching evidence. Charity befriends the boy, who begins to act oddly, and tells her he is frightened that his father has come to France to find them. There is more foreboding:

For most of the play had been played already; there had been love and lust and revenge and fear and murder – all the blood-tragedy bric-à-brac except the Ghost – and now the killer, with blood enough on his hands, was waiting in the wings for the lights to go up again, on the last kill that would bring the final curtain down.

The father sees Charity with the boy, and pursues her across the South of France in a rather exciting car chase.

Then everything is turned upside down, and Charity learns that what she has heard about the case so far may not be true. She has to make a choice who to believe, and does it instinctively, siding with the man with whom she has fallen in love.

Now the book is a romance as well as a thriller, and the plot plays itself out very satisfactorily, and there is a happy ending. It is a well-made book, and very much a page-turner. The apparently trustworthy turn out to be villains and someone apparently sinister turns out to be a dependable British policeman.

It’s a rather bookish book. In just the first chapter there are references to W.S. Gilbert, to Gilbert White and to Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Many of the chapters have epigraphs from Chaucer, Spenser, Browning, Shakespeare, and so on. I thought occasionally of Q.D. Leavis’s attack on Dorothy Sayers for using cultural references gave her books the appearance of literature, and a snobbish appeal, while they were actually easy and unchallenging entertainment that did not challenge the reader’s values. The literary snippets do indeed add considerably to the book’s cosiness, as does its distrust of men and women who are too attractive, and its admiration for ‘the integrity and human-kindness of the English police’.

And yet the book is far from entirely cosy. Gradually it reveals an intrigue that has its roots in an incident during the Second World War. A British prisoner of war is being driven across Europe by train, and sees a very disturbing incident:

There was another train waiting, too – a lot of boarded-up trucks, with some chalk-marks scrawled across them. We didn’t tumble to it until we saw a little bunch of S.S. guards standing about, and then we realized what was going on. It was a train-load of Jews going East to the slaughter-houses.

The British man witnesses the vicious murder of one of the Jewish prisoners. This book was published in 1955, at a time when the events of the Holocaust (before it was called the Holocaust) were only rarely discussed. Immediately after the war, British authorities had downplayed the horror of the camps, because they wanted to dampen hostility to Germans and give Germany a chance to recover. (Sidney Bernstein’s documentary film project German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, on which Alfred Hitchcock was an advisor, was shelved for this reason.) Conventional wisdom has it that after Nuremberg the Holocaust disappeared from public discourse, and that it was rather bad taste to mention it, until the Eichmann trial brought it unavoidably to public notice in 1961. But Mary Stewart’s book is evidence that reminders could reappear in the most unexpected places during the fifties. Has any academic done a study of Holocaust mentions in popular culture during the 1950s? It would be an interesting study.

5 thoughts on “Madam, Will You Talk (1955) by Mary Stewart

  1. I well remember being enraptured by this and My Brother Michael as a teenager. Admittedly this was partly because they made a good contrast with set books such as Oliver Twist. But I also remember as a Saturday girl at our branch library being worried when I heard a member of the regular staff recommending Stewart as light romance!

  2. Great review of one of my all-time favorite books! In fact, my mother and I were planning to trace Charity’s travel through Provence in May. Another time, I hope!

    There is a lot of distrust of attractive people in this book although I hadn’t thought of it that way. In most of her books, the heroine is very attractive herself.

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