Jenny Silver travels to the Pyrenees in search of her cousin, Gillian. Gillian is half-French & has lived in France with her husband for some years, although she lived in Oxford with Jenny’s family after her parents were killed in an air raid during the war. After Gillian is widowed, she writes to Jenny, telling her that she is about to enter a convent in the Vallée des Orages. Jenny is surprised & a little hurt that her cousin should do something so unexpected & she decides to go out & see Gill. At her hotel in the nearby town of Gavarnie she meets Stephen Masefield, a man she knew at home. Stephen was very much in love with Jenny but her mother disapproved of the relationship & his prospects & he left England to study music in Vienna. Now, after returning to Oxford, finding Jenny gone but encouraged by her father to pursue her, Stephen has followed her to Gavarnie.
Jenny sets out for the convent only to be told when she arrives that Gillian is dead. Doña Francisca, the bursar of the convent, tells her that Gillian was involved in a car accident on her way to the convent, caught pneumonia & died soon after. Jenny is shocked & determined to find out as much as possible. She’s also wary of Doña Francisca, a Spaniard who has never been professed but seems to wield enormous power within the convent. She takes decisions that would seem to be the province of the Reverend Mother, a gentle, elderly woman who also happens to be blind. So, she can’t see the rich paintings & gold candlesticks in the chapel of this humble convent & orphanage & doesn’t seem to have any idea that they’re there. Or realize how much power Doña Francisca seems to have over the young novice, Celeste, who has secrets of her own.
Jenny is immediately suspicious & becomes more so after she learns a little more about Gillian’s illness. Only Doña Francisca & a young novice, Celeste, seem to have seen Gillian. The Reverend Mother visited her but, of course, couldn’t see her. The description of Gillian seems to fit but there are worrying discrepancies. She was lucid at times, but never spoke of England where she grew up or mentioned Jenny even though she had asked her to come to visit her at the convent. Gillian was also colour blind, a rare condition in a woman & when Celeste tells Jenny how much Gillian had admired the blue gentians she put by her bed, Jenny knows that something is wrong. She is convinced that Gillian is not dead & that some other woman is in her grave.
The Reverend Mother is kind but unconvinced & Doña Francisca is scornful & does all she can to frustrate Jenny’s enquiries. Celeste & the other nuns seem completely under Doña Francisca’s spell & even Stephen thinks that Jenny’s grief has made her unreasonable. Jenny is invited to stay at the convent & she becomes more convinced that there is a secret at the convent that concerns Gillian. In the middle of the night she follows Doña Francisca to a nearby farm owned by Pierre Bussac, a man with a shady past & overhears enough to realise that there’s more at stake than just finding out about Gillian. Stephen becomes convinced when he learns from the police about Bussac’s activities during the war & after & their investigations lead them into danger as they try to find out what became of Gillian &, if she’s alive, who was the woman buried in the convent graveyard?
Thunder on the Right is a suspenseful, exciting story set, as all Mary Stewart’s books are, in a beautifully-realised location. The Pyrenees, near the border between France & Spain, are lonely, wild & treacherous & the climax of the book takes place on a stormy night as Jenny races along mountain paths dodging a landslide & the murderous Doña Francisca to get to the truth. Doña Francisca is a great villain, a woman totally obsessed with her power & her status. The pace is frantic &, although Jenny does a fair bit of running to Stephen for comfort & reassurance, she doesn’t give up her quest & is alone in the thrilling final chapters as she finally discovers the truth. Mary Stewart & Ann Bridge, who I’ve also been reading recently, both wrote novels of romantic suspense set in exotic locations & featuring heroines who do more than just sit back & wait for a man to work out what’s happening. Their books are perfect comfort reading with enough suspense to make the heart beat just a little bit faster & to make me feel very pleased to be sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea at my side & a cat sleeping on my lap.