When I was in eighth grade, the Vice Principal called me to his office. Apparently, I had lost track of time during study hall in the school library and missed all of my afternoon classes. I’d never been in trouble before and didn’t know how to get to the Vice Principal’s office. So the librarian had to walk me down. And there I stood, trembling, with a book pressed against my chest.

The Vice Principal stood over me with a black beard and a scowl, like a dark storm cloud. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, praying he wouldn’t call my parents. “But it wasn’t my fault. I know it.” I was, after all, a straight A honor student and secretary of the Latin Club (which is probably why I didn’t have any dates until my Junior year in High School).

“What were you doing?” he asked.

Wanting to throw up, I held out my book and said, “I found this in the stacks and sat on the floor to read the first chapter to see if I liked it. And before I knew it, the last bell rang.” Then, much to my horror, I burst into tears.

The Vice Principal, a father of five girls, took the book out of my hands. “Ahh, Nine Coaches Waiting. Did you finish it?” To read more, please join me today at Kiss and Thrill, or click here:

Finish it? I’d DEVOURED it. But I didn’t say that. I just snuffled and nodded.

Then with a wave of his hand, he dismissed me, saying, “Next time, don’t open any book by Mary Stewart until you know you have hours of free time ahead of you.”

So relieved, I ran from the office and left school. My dad usually picked me up at the public library across the street, but that day he was late and I had to wait an hour. That hour changed my life. Hidden deep in the fiction shelves, I found a world belonging to Mary Stewart, an author I’ve since learned is the “Mother of Classic Romantic Suspense”. With gothic overtones, bad boy heroes, and stories set in exotic places, I fell in love with a genre I had never heard of before. And the most wonderful thing about Mary Stewart was the number of her books on the shelf. That day, I checked out seven. And I found out the Vice Principal was right. In less than a week, I read them all and went back for more.

Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was born in England on September 17, 1916. After receiving a B.A. and a M.A. in English, and working as an elementary school teacher during WWII, she married Frederick Henry Stewart in 1945. Although she continued teaching part-time, her husband encouraged her to start writing. In 1953, at the urging of her husband, she sent a manuscript for Madam, Will You Talk? which was accepted for publication by Hodder and Stoughton. The book, published in 1954, received wonderful reviews. From 1955  until 1980, she published one book a year, every one a bestseller. Since 1954, her books have never been out of print and a few were made into movies.

The element that drove her success–the same element that captured me during a school day and made me miss my classes–was her ability to craft a suspenseful mystery with a love story. This blending is so masterful, that neither the love story nor the mystery can stand on its own. One drives the other in a breathless pace of action, adventure, and romance. In a time when there were few women authors writing commercial fiction, she quickly became one of the most important twentieth-century female authors, rivaling Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert). She was an author ahead of her time, not just with her romantic suspense novels, but with her best-selling Arthurian Fantasy series where she broke all the rules and made Merlin–not Arthur–the protagonist.

Pam Regis writes in a A Natural History of the Romance Novel, “Stewart’s influence extends to every writer of romantic suspense, for Stewart understood and perfected this hybrid of romance and mystery and used it as a structure for books so beautifully written that they have endured to become part of the canon of the twentieth-century romance novel.” (Ch. 14 (pgs. 143-154)–Courtship and Suspense: Mary Stewart)

Her influence can still be seen today. In 2006, when Nine Coaches Waiting was reissued, Sandra Brown (one of my favorite authors) wrote the forward, stating, “With its cast of fascinating characters, its ominous setting, and its captivating plot, this story of suspense and romance entertains today, as it did half a century ago. Generations of readers have adored it. It’s the kind of haunting novel that one rereads every year or so. Other writers, this one included, have been inspired by Ms. Stewart’s style, but her incredible us of language can never be duplicated.” (Nine Coaches Waiting, Forward by Sandra Brown, Chicago Review Press, 2006, pp. iii – iv)

And the book that got me in so much trouble? I just bought a reprint for my daughter. But after she turned up her nose saying she doesn’t like historicals (i.e. stories that take place in the twentieth century), I took an afternoon last week, curled up with a cup of tea, and reread it. By the time I put it down, I discovered my husband and kids had fed themselves dinner and gone to bed. Without notice, I’d read from 2 PM until 11:30 PM. The afternoon and most of the night were gone, and I’d finished the book. Again.

For those readers interested, here is the back cover blurb from the William Morrow edition of Nine Coaches Waiting, 1959.

“The Chateau Valmy, rising in foursquare classical dignity from a wooded plateau in the Haute-Savoie, seemed like a dream come true to Linda Martin. Young, lovely, she had had little in her life to spark a genuine gift for love and laughter, but now, as English governess to nine-year-old Comte Philippe de Valmy, it would be easy to forget the tragedy of her father and mother, the drab orphanage years, the dreary school where she had taught. But tension was in the very air–at first negligible, then building to an unbearable degree, as does a gathering storm.

At its center was the young count’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, dynamic, arrogant, yet the epitome of charm, whose paralysis seemed little hindrance as he moved noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room–supervising, ordering, dominating everyone in sight, including his beautiful but unaccountably abstracted wife and his small, silent nephew and ward. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic young man who drove himself and his car with equal abandon, seemed able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul was an enigma. Though physically attracted to him, she sensed some dark twist in his nature…

And then one day deep in the woods there occurred a frightening, unaccountable incident–the first ripple to mar the calm, serene surface of an idyllic existence.”

And for those who just have to read the first line before you buy a book (which would be me), how can you not want to read a story that starts like this:

“I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” (Nine Coaches Waiting, Chapter 1, p. 3)

Now I’d love to know I’m not the only one who has lost time while lost in a novel. Has it ever happened to you? Which story was it?”

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