I’m glad that A Lighthearted Quest is the first of a series because I’m looking forward to spending more time with Julia Probyn. Julia is a freelance journalist with private means who agrees to go out to Morocco to look for her cousin, Colin Monro. Colin is the son of a rather flustery widow. She owns an estate in Scotland that, until recently, was run by her brother-in-law. His recent death has brought Colin’s sister, Edina, home to look after things but she has a well-paid job in advertising in London, & doesn’t want to live at Glentoran indefinitely. Her salary also pays some of the bills. Colin hasn’t been in touch for months & all their letters & newspaper advertisements have met with silence. He was last heard of sailing a yacht around Casablanca & Gibraltar, buying & selling oranges. Julia agrees to go out to look for Colin, planning to supplement the meagre currency allowance with some articles for her newspaper clients.
Julia is practical & very determined. She’s also beautiful & has admirers in some very advantageous places such as the Foreign Office & various banks. Julia’s good looks lead some people to underestimate her, see her as a “dumb blonde” but they’re wrong. She’s the kind of no nonsense Englishwoman who asks questions & just expects to receive answers. This sometimes leads to over-confidence & gets her into trouble more than once on her adventures but I found her an endearing character. She also reads Nancy Mitford & Edith Wharton so I could approve of her literary taste as well. Published in 1956, the book is full of the details of travel & politics of the era. Some of the attitudes to women & colonialism are dated but they’re of their time & I enjoy books of this period & earlier without worrying too much about the sometimes questionable attitudes of the characters.
Julia goes out to Morocco on a freight ship &, after an unexpected stopover in Casablanca that allows her to meet up with her banking friend, she moves on to Tangier. No one she speaks to believes that Colin is selling oranges, they all assume he’s smuggling as everyone does along the coast. Tracking him down becomes complicated &, as money is running out, Julia gets a job as secretary to an eccentric Belgian archaeologist, Mme La Besse. Mme is excavating a Phoenician settlement with oil presses, wine vats &, hopefully, some undisturbed tombs.
Julia also makes contact with the mysterious Purcell, the owner of a bar where a lot of English expats congregate. Purcell is able to give Julia a few clues & she soon decides that whatever it is that Colin is smuggling, it’s something more important than a few luxuries for the beauty-starved English. He could even be involved with British Intelligence. She catches a glimpse of Colin & his red-bearded companion on the roof of a house in Tangier but loses him in the crowd. Julia’s search takes her to Fez & Marrakesh, into the souks & bazaars as well as the cocktail parties & hotels of the wealthy. She pieces together the story after adventures including a bomb blast & a night spent in an empty tomb to deter grave robbers. There’s even a hint of romance for Julia by the end of the book.
I loved the atmosphere of this book. I was reminded of Mary Stewart’s books with their resourceful heroines in exotic locations. Also of M M Kaye, who wrote a series of murder mysteries called Death in Zanzibar, Death in Kashmir etc. Although M M Kaye is better known for her big Indian Raj historical novels like The Far Pavilions & Shadow of the Moon (both just reprinted by Penguin), I enjoyed this series which I think was influenced by the author’s life as an Army wife being posted all over the world. I’d love to read them again. Ann Bridge’s husband was in the diplomatic service & you can feel her personal knowledge of North Africa in her evocative descriptions of the cities Julia visits,
Afterwards they all strolled again on the Djema el F’na. There was a full moon, and the great Koutoubia minaret – to eyes familiar with the minarets of Turkey, slender as knitting-needles, so much more like a tower – stood up almost transparent in the moonlight, in all its immense dignity and beauty. At night, under the naphtha flares, the tempo of pleasure and entertainment on the great square – the “place folle” as the French call it – is heightened: the circles around the dancers are more dense, the grey-bearded performers leap more wildly, while the metal clappers, the original castanets, rattle like machine-gun fire; the gestures of the story-tellers are more dramatic, the serpents of the snake-charmers writhe like souls in torment. Public enjoyment for its own sake here achieves an expression unparalleled elsewhere on earth – it is indescribably stimulating. But it is also exhausting, and presently Julia declared for bed.
All the Ann Bridge series (the list of titles is here) are available from Bloomsbury Reader as Print on Demand paperbacks or as e-books, which is how I’ll be reading them. I bought my e-book copy from The Book Depository where it was on sale for 40% off.