25-year-old actress Lucy Waring, disappointed by the folding of her first major role after a short and unsuccessful run in the West End, is running away to Corfu. (This is fair. If I had a sister who had married a wealthy Corfiote landlord, thus allowing me to run away to a Greek island every time something in my career didn’t come off, I would do just that). When she arrives, her sister Phyllida tells her that the big, crumbling old villa owned by her husband has been rented out to famous actor Sir Julian Gale and his son. Julian is Lucy’s hero – she’s seen him on stage at least ten times – but he dropped into obscurity after his abrupt retirement. Phyllida hints that there might be a reason he disappeared from the stage so suddenly. Still, swimming in the sea and walking among the local flora is a balm to Lucy’s wounded ambition, and she settles in well. But it isn’t long before an islander drowns in somewhat suspicious circumstances, a friendly local dolphin is under threat from a mysterious assailant, and Phyllida loses her diamond ring…

This Rough Magic (1964), by Mary Stewart, is a bit different from my usual fare. Stewart’s genre is, I believe, what is commonly termed “romantic suspense”. I heard about it in the Greece episode of Strong Sense of Place. Because I’d had a previously underwhelming experience with Stewart*, I wouldn’t have picked it up, but the description was so appealing that I thought I would risk it. Overall I am very glad I did. The title is a quote from The Tempest, and part of the novel’s premise is that Corfu may be the inspiration for the nameless island in that play. Of course, a book containing two actors and set on a possible Shakespearean island spends quite a lot of time discussing that particular literary mystery, and I really enjoyed the way it was threaded into the wider plot. Another theme that runs through the book is the tension between Greece and Albania. Corfu is closer geographically to Albania than it is to mainland Greece, but was liberated from successive Italian and Nazi occupations by British troops, then rebuilt post-WWII by the Greek government. In 1964, when the book is set, all these tensions are very much a live issue. Some of the islanders have a sideline in smuggling luxury goods to communist Albania, which is lucrative but dangerous.

The mystery and action scenes are done wonderfully. I saw this described in a review as “Enid Blyton for grown-ups”, and while I feel that is seriously underselling Stewart’s talents as a writer, it definitely has some of that vibe. It’s almost more adventure story than mystery. The big, brooding, crumbling Castello dei Fiori where the Gales live looms over the story, giving it a gothic feeling that intersects with the sunny, beachy setting. The setting is the real star, in fact. The characters are painted with fairly broad strokes and didn’t stay with me – except Julian Gale, who is probably the most nuanced of a fairly unnuanced bunch – but the setting is rendered in very loving detail. I really don’t have a visual imagination, but there were scenes in this that I could almost see, which always impresses me. I truly felt like I’d been to Corfu with Lucy. This time of year is always stressful at work (somehow I forget every year just how rough October and November are), and this was just what I wanted to read – deliciously escapist and using up precisely the right amount of brain space.

Among other things, this book most definitely made me want to visit Corfu. (Image from Wikimedia).

It’s not a perfect book, though. The novel was published in the 60s and there are a few throwaway phrases that I doubt would be in there these days, especially with regard to the deference working-class Corfiote islanders show to the wealthy British woman who employs them. It only crops up a couple of times and I don’t think Lucy, who is the point-of-view character, expects or demands it – but she doesn’t question it either. It simply lingers in the background, accepted as natural. Because it isn’t integral to the story, it didn’t bother me too much, but I definitely noticed it – especially in a few scenes towards the end. More of an issue is the fact that Lucy jumps to conclusions so quickly. To be fair to Stewart, this is clearly an intentional character flaw – it’s just one that I happen to find very irritating. Because it’s a first-person narration, I felt like I was being asked to share her perspective, whereas in real life I would definitely want more information before making such snap decisions either way. It seemed clear that one of the characters she was jumping to conclusions about was a potential love interest for her, so it felt like an artificial obstacle put there to complicate their relationship. Annoyingly, she is soon given good reason to be suspicious – if Stewart had only waited a couple of chapters before Lucy takes against him, it would have felt much more believable. And, while we’re here, I might as well add that characters falling in love “at first sight” (or as near as) stretches my credulity in every story where I encounter it, and this book was no exception.

Despite all my grumbles, though, this novel was exactly what the doctor ordered. I can’t imagine managing more than one on the trot, but I will definitely be reading more Mary Stewart. In fact, I can easily see myself hunting down old copies of her novels so that I have them on hand for the dark part of the year. Recommended if you fancy an exciting adventure in Corfu, especially as the nights draw in and the days grow cold!

*At least, I thought I had – I thought she was responsible for a dreadful Christmas mystery set in Scotland and riddled with clichés and stereotypes that I read a few years ago, but a) I can’t find it anywhere in her bibliography, and b) apparently she married a Scot and lived most of her life in Edinburgh, whereas the book I’m thinking of had a distinct air of “written by someone who once saw a picture of Groundskeeper Willie; might be able to locate Scotland on a map but don’t bet on it”. Probably there’s another novelist of a similar name responsible for that particular crime against literature. (I can’t even remember the name of the book to warn you all off of it. Clearly it’s a mostly-suppressed memory).