The Religious Body – Catherine Aird

Sister Anne, of the Convent of St Anselm, has been found dead at the bottom of the cellar steps. The back of her head has been shattered by a heavy blow but there’s a curious absence of blood at the scene. What was meant to look like an accident is soon revealed to be murder. Inspector C D Sloan of Calleshire CID arrives, accompanied by his very raw constable, William Crosby. A convent is foreign territory to Sloan & his investigation isn’t helped by the unhelpfulness of witnesses who practice custody of the eyes & make a virtue of being unobservant. Sister Anne was seen at Vespers on the night of her death but, when forensic surgeon Dr Dabbe determines that she must have been dead at least two hours earlier, who was it who sat in her stall in Chapel? And where were Sister Anne’s glasses when she couldn’t see very far without them?

Before she entered the convent, Sister Anne had been Josephine Cartwright, a member of a wealthy family, who disowned her when she became a nun. That wealth was made in munitions during the Great War & Sister Anne is due to inherit a substantial amount of money which her disapproving family can’t prevent. She wants to use the money to build a cloister for the convent & to further the order’s work in the mission field but this plan would not please her cousin, Harold, the Managing Director of the firm which is just about to be listed as a public company.Why should Harold Cartwright have suddenly decided to visit his cousin after twenty years, on the very day she’s murdered? Could one of Sister Anne’s fellow nuns murdered her for the sake of the inheritance? Sloan must try to penetrate the bland courtesy & unvarying routines of the nuns to discover if any of the Sisters had a secret in their past that could have led to murder.

The investigation takes another turn when the students at the nearby Agricultural Institute dress their Bonfire Night Guy in a nun’s habit. After an anonymous tip off, Sloan arrives just in time to rescue the guy from the flames & discovers that it’s also wearing Sister Anne’s glasses. Three students confess to stealing the old habit from the convent on the night of the murder but deny knowing anything about the glasses. When one of the students is found dead, strangled in the Convent shrubbery, it seems that he must have seen something that was dangerous to the murderer, whether he realised it or not.

The Religious Body was the first of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan mysteries, published in 1966. I must have discovered them in the 1980s & I’ve read them all. I can’t resist a convent mystery (having recently reread Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun) & it’s been so many years since I read this that it was like reading a new novel. Open Road Media have released many of the Sloan series as eBooks & we’ve bought some for our eBook collection at work so I plan to read a few more of the early books. Reading The Religious Body reminded me of Catherine Aird’s only non-series mystery novel, A Most Contagious Game, which I’ve linked to in my featured post this week. I do like her writing style, her cool, dry humour & she has a real sense of atmosphere. Inspector Sloan is an engaging detective who has much to put up with the very inexperienced Crosby & his tetchy boss, Superintendent Leeyes.

Quiet as a Nun – Antonia Fraser

2015 has turned out to be my year of rereading. I think I could almost put together a Top 10 list of my rereads for the year as well as my usual Top 10. Reading Antonia Fraser’s childhood memoir, My History, led me back to her first mystery novel, Quiet as a Nun, published in 1977.

Jemima Shore is a television journalist. She presents a program called Jemima Shore Investigates which looks into social issues & public scandals. Jemima is having an affair with a married politician, Tom Amyas, who’s also very involved in social issues. At a loose end one night as she waits for Tom, Jemima sees a story in the newspaper about a nun found dead in an isolated tower. Jemima is taken back to her schooldays as she attended the convent school where the nun died. Blessed Eleanor’s convent had been founded by a royal patroness, the Blessed Eleanor, who founded the Order of the Tower of Ivory & built a tower as a private retreat in the grounds. It was in this same tower that the nun, Sister Miriam, was found dead. It seems that she had accidentally locked herself in to the tower & starved to death. Jemima not only knew the convent but the nun. Sister Miriam had been Rosabelle Powerstock, a schoolfriend of Jemima’s.

Jemima is surprised to be contacted by Reverend Mother Ancilla who asks her to visit the convent & find out what happened to Sister Miriam. The inquest into her death was scathing about the lack of support Sister Miriam received. She had been distressed before her death& there is speculation that she may have starved herself to death deliberately. Sister Miriam was a very wealthy woman before she entered the convent & retained control over a lot of property including the land on which the convent was built. It seems that her family business, the Powers Estate, was involved in a project to evict poor tenants to build a high-rise development. Sister Miriam wanted to change her will & give the convent land to a group who were trying to prevent the development. The protesters, led by the charismatic Alexander Skarbek, had been the focus of one of Jemima’s recent programmes. Sister Miriam’s death & the disappearance of her new will (if it ever existed) is very convenient for Mother Ancilla. Jemima soon discovers that there is evil in the convent & many secrets. There is also the mysterious Black Nun who is rumoured to be the spirit of the Blessed Eleanor & is seen flitting around the convent at night.

I’ve read Quiet as a Nun several times since it was first published. I love books about nuns & convents, fiction & non-fiction, & many mysteries are set in convents & monasteries. It’s a closed community & the nuns all had other lives & other names before they entered so there’s a lot of scope for mystery. Jemima also mentions several times that it’s difficult to know how old a nun is because their habit hides the telltale signs of aging at the neck & forehead. Even though I’d read it before, I was still misled & ended up suspecting the wrong person. Some scenes I remembered very well, especially the scene when Jemima goes in to the Tower (alone, of course) & hears a chair rocking in the chamber above. She opens the door to reveal a nun rocking to and fro although it’s actually only the empty habit. But someone must have started the chair rocking… There are a few missteps. The ending is tied up a bit too neatly & the sexual politics are very much of their time. Although that’s not really a misstep because that’s just the way things were, I suppose. It just feels odd for a successful, independent woman like Jemima to be sitting at home waiting for her married lover to turn up. It’s a bit of a cliché. On the other hand, there are some genuinely creepy moments when Jemima is in the crypt under the chapel with the coffins of previous Reverend Mothers of the convent, including the Blessed Eleanor, all around her. There’s also a funny scene at the school fete where Jemima silently criticises the wife of the local MP for making a mess of her speech. As the former wife of a Tory MP & daughter of a politician, I’m sure Fraser was an expert on stump speeches & opening fetes.

There was a TV version made of Quiet as a Nun as part of the Armchair Thriller series, with Maria Aitken as Jemima. I’d love to see it again but it’s hard to get hold of. The subsequent TV series, which I do have, didn’t redo Quiet as a Nun but did star Patricia Hodge who I always enjoy seeing. She’s probably best known now as Miranda’s mother but I remember her in this series & as Phyllida Erskine-Brown, “the Portia of our chambers” in Rumpole of the Bailey. It doesn’t seem that any of the episodes are based on the subsequent novels by Antonia Fraser, except for A Splash of Red. I would love to read a few more of the novels & luckily they were reprinted last year & I bought them all for my library so no temptation to break my book-buying ban!

Death’s Dark Vale – Diney Costeloe

Adelaide Anson-Gravetty wakes up on the morning of her 21st birthday & discovers that she’s not who she thought she was. A letter from a firm of solicitors informs her that she is not the daughter of the man she calls her father. Her half-French mother was married before & her first husband, Freddie Hurst, Adelaide’s father, was killed during WWI. Richard Anson-Gravetty had married Heather Hurst when Adelaide was only a toddler. He adopted Adelaide but didn’t want her to know about her father or his family. Adelaide was only permitted to speak French with her mother when they were alone &, although she’s close to her French grandmother, she knows nothing of the Hurst family. Now, however, she discovers that she has come into a considerable fortune from her Hurst grandfather & also receives a letter, written by her late mother, telling her something of Freddie & explaining the reason for the secrecy about Adelaide’s birth.

Adelaide also discovers that she has an aunt, Sarah, who is a nun in a French convent. Worried that her grandfather’s will makes no mention of Sarah, Adelaide visits her, now Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre, & learns more about her father, Freddie. She also meets her great-aunt Anne, Sister St Bruno, an elderly nun, almost bedridden but with a sharp mind. Sarah explains how she came to enter a French convent (a story told in Diney Costeloe’s earlier novel, The Ashgrove, which I read last year) & that Adelaide need not worry about her inheritance. Sarah received her inheritance from her father as a dowry when she entered the convent. After nursing in the convent hospital during the war, Sarah stayed on & now, almost twenty years later, she is Reverend Mother of the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in St Croix. Adelaide is happy to have made contact & delighted to learn about her birth family. She returns home, goes to university & life goes on.

Two years later, in 1939, war breaks out. In France, Reverend Mother Marie-Pierre finds herself & her convent involved in this war as they had been in the last. The convent hospital cares for the local people but soon, refugees fleeing from the advancing German army are also in need of help. Sarah takes in the children of a Jewish woman killed when a group of refugees are bombed & hides them among a small group of orphans that the convent cares for. She has no illusions as to their fate if the Germans should find them & eventually she takes them to the Mother House of the Order in Paris where their story will not be known.

An English airman is shot down & finds his way to the convent. Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc hide him in the cellars & get him away by disguising him as a nun & taking him to Albert, where a sympathetic priest, Father Bernard, helps him get home. Sarah is reluctant to get involved in any more illegal activities, conscious that she has the responsibility of the welfare of all the nuns. She is also well aware that not all the nuns are willing to disobey the German regulations & there are informers among the villagers who would profit from informing on Sarah if they discovered what was happening. She may have lived in France for over 20 years but many remember that she is English & there is also some resentment that she has been promoted to Reverend Mother at such a young age. The German commander, Major Thielen, is suspicious of Sarah’s activities but finds nothing on searching the convent. He is also Catholic & has a certain reverence for the convent & the sisters. That cannot be said of Colonel Hoch, a Gestapo officer who arrives in St Croix soon after, determined to find any traitors, as he calls them, who may be assisting the Resistance or harbouring Jews.

Adelaide, meanwhile, has been recruited to the SOE. Determined to do some war work, she joined up as a driver with the WAAF but, with her fluent French, was soon sounded out about her willingness to be dropped into France to help a Resistance network helping Allied soldiers escape. When Terry, the airman helped by Sarah, returns to England, & Adelaide’s connection to the convent are discovered, she is sent to St Croix to make contact with Sarah & see if the convent is a suitable place to use in the escape route.

Death’s Dark Vale is an exciting story full of suspense & danger. Adelaide & Sarah are both wonderful heroines, incredibly brave & resourceful. Their stories reflect those of many people during WWII who risked their own lives to help others. However, there are just as many characters determined to thwart their plans, whether from cowardice or greed. There’s a real sense of the terror of the times as the Germans settled in to occupation, stealing the convent’s chickens & appearing at any time to conduct a search, respecting no one & questioning everything they’re told. The anguish of not knowing who to trust was ever-present & Adelaide experiences this just as much as Sarah. They are always aware that their actions have consequences, not only for themselves but for the people who help them & the people they’re trying to help & not all their plans are successful. I also loved the impressive level of detail in the descriptions of Adelaide’s training & then her mission in France as well as the many contrivances of Sarah & Sister Marie-Marc as they try to outwit the Germans.

As I mentioned when I reviewed The Ashgrove, Diney is a friend from my online reading group & she kindly sent me a copy of Death’s Dark Vale to review.

Veiled Desires – Maureen A Sabine

Some of my favourite movies are about nuns. Black Narcissus, The Nun’s Story, In This House of Brede are all movies I’ve watched many times. Maureen A Sabine’s new book is a study of the way nuns have been portrayed in mainstream cinema since the 1940s. To give you an idea of the scope of this scholarly but accessible book, this is how the author describes her work,

I hope to contribute a deeper dimension to the feminist and historical study that has already been done on nuns as a neglected category of women, and to enrich the cultural study of their religious and institutional roles through the addition of my literary, psychoanalytic, and theological perspective to the analysis of how the screen nun’s desires traverse the boundaries separating religious life from secular, modern life, a sacred vocation from the call of the world, and agapaic from erotic love.

The movies are discussed in chronological order from The Bells of St Mary’s in 1945 to Doubt in 2008. Sabine gives an excellent account of the history of the Church over these decades to set the movies in the context of changes in the Church & society. It was fascinating to look at these movies in the context of the reasons women had for entering a convent, the differences between the contemplative & missionary orders & the way that the movies deliberately set up conflict between the religious life & the attractions of the secular world. The stereotype of the nun as a frustrated woman hiding from the world or living out her dreams of power in the only environment open to her is explored against the depiction of the Church as a patriarchal oppressor of these women. Sabine also explores the feminist reaction to these movies which has often been dismissive of the portrayal of the nun as a submissive servant or titillating sex object.

Veiled Desires is such a rich source of material for discussion that I’m just going to mention a few points from the chapters on my three favourite movies. Black Narcissus is based on the novel by Rumer Godden. It’s the story of a group of Anglican nuns who are sent to set up a hospital & mission in the Himalayas. The mission is led by Sister Clodagh, a relatively young woman who entered the convent after the man she loved didn’t propose marriage. The nuns have been given a house that was once the harem of the local Prince on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere affects them all, the constant wind & the erotic paintings on the walls stir their thoughts & emotions. The local agent, Mr Dean, is a sarcastic man who predicts failure for the mission & is dismissive of the help the nuns try to provide with their school & their hospital.

Black Narcissus explores the way the nuns are changed by the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, finds herself remembering her unhappy love affair & her self-confidence is dented as she realises the challenges of her role as head of the mission. She is challenged by Mr Dean but also by Sister Ruth, whose emotional state deteriorates when she becomes fixated on Mr Dean. In one scene, Sister Clodagh is confronted by Sister Ruth, who has abandoned the habit, dressed in a red dress & applying lipstick, flaunting her sexuality. The mission has an unhappy end after a village child dies after receiving treatment by the nuns & Sister Ruth attempts to kill Sister Clodagh. The movie attracted criticism from American Catholics who were appalled by the way the nuns were presented but it does explore the emotional cost of being a nun. Celibacy & obedience are difficult challenges.

Obedience would be the downfall of Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story. This is such a beautiful movie. I especially love the first half which is almost documentary-like as it shows Sister Luke’s journey as a novice & a postulent. Audrey Hepburn’s beautiful, expressive face is the focus of almost every scene. Gabrielle Van Der Mal is a young Belgian girl in the 1920s who enters the convent with the aim of nursing in the Congo which was then a Belgian colony. Her father was a famous surgeon & her life was one of privilege. However, nursing wouldn’t necessarily be an appropriate career for a young woman of her class and so, she becomes a nun. Sister Luke’s struggles with obedience begin early as she disobeys a misguided superior who instructs her to fail an exam on purpose as an act of obedience & charity to a less fortunate sister. Sister Luke’s pride won’t allow her to do this. Her first medical posting in an asylum is also marred by disobedience when she disregards a rule & is almost killed by a patient.

Eventually, she is posted to the Congo but, even then, finds she must work in the European hospital rather than on the mission station where she hoped to be sent. Her work in the hospital brings her into conflict with Church hierarchy as she singularises herself in her work with the native porters. She also meets a brilliant man, Dr Fortunati, who challenges her every step of the way & whom she is emotionally attracted to. Sabine uses The Nun’s Story as a way of exploring the vow of obedience which is at the heart of every nun’s commitment in religious life. Eventually, Sister Luke finds the vow of obedience too much after her return to Europe & the death of her father by the Germans during WWII.

In This House of Brede, a TV movie made in the 1970s, was also based on a book by Rumer Godden. She didn’t like either of the movies based on her books, incidentally. Philippa Talbot (Diana Rigg) is a successful career woman struggling with a personal tragedy when she decides to enter the Benedictine house at Brede Abbey. The Benedictines are a contemplative order with very little contact with the outside world & Philippa is looking towards service to God to try to forget herself & her unhappy memories. Her growing peace is shattered by the arrival of a young novice, Joanna, who reminds her strongly of her own daughter, also called Joanna, who was killed in an accident.

The movie reflects the situation of many convents in the 1970s when the number of vocations was dropping as the sexual revolution & feminism made it less attractive for a young woman to enter a convent. The admission of older women who may have been married or had children caused different problems in an enclosed community as is seen here by Philippa’s combative relationship with Dame Agnes, an older nun who entered as a very young girl & is both threatened by Philippa’s worldliness & jealous of her. Philippa also has a supportive friendship with the new Reverend Mother, Dame Catherine, which raises questions about the need to love all the sisters equally with no special friendships allowed. The movie simplifies the original novel with its large cast of characters to just these four women (which is what annoyed Rumer Godden) but I’m very fond of it.

There’s so much more in Veiled Desires than I have room for in a brief review. I wish I could mention Sabine’s discussions of the image of the actresses who played nuns & the way that affected how the movies were received eg Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Mary Tyler Moore in Change of Habit. Change of Habit also leads to an interesting discussion about the social changes of the 1960s & the impact of Vatican II. Then there are the movies where nuns are thrown together with men on tropical islands (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison with Deborah Kerr again) or on lifeboats (Sea Wife with Joan Collins) & the issues explored in these movies of celibacy & respect for the religious habit & the invisibility of a woman wearing the habit. This is a rich book which will send you back to the movies discussed with fresh eyes.

I read Veiled Desires courtesy of NetGalley.

Books I’m looking forward to

As if I didn’t have enough sources of new books & more than enough to read on the tbr shelves, I’ve recently discovered NetGalley. This is a website that supplies free pre-publication e-books for reviewers, bloggers & anyone who promotes books & reading. I’ve already enjoyed reading several books from NetGalley including Martin Edwards’ The Frozen Shroud & The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo.

I’ve recently downloaded several books to be published over the next few months that I’m very excited about. John Guy is a well-known historian who has written biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots & Thomas Becket. His new book, published in July, is The Children of Henry VIII. As I’m always interested in another book about the Tudors & I’ve read & enjoyed Guy’s other books, I’m looking forward to this very much.

A first novel to be published in July, Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole, immediately caught my attention. It ticks so many boxes – Skye, set during WWI & WWII, a poet, letters & a mysterious disappearance. Already, without having read a word, it has echoes for me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Glass Guardian by Linda Gillard & Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson. Here’s the blurb from Amazon,

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet and a fisherman’s wife, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s bucolic Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when a fan letter arrives from an American college student, David Graham.As the two strike up a correspondence – sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets – their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I moves across Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he comes back alive.
June 1940: More than twenty years later, at the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for her best friend, a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against finding love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. And after a nearby bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter, sent decades before by a stranger named David Graham, remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover who David is and where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago . . .
 

I’ve always been fascinated by nuns & movies featuring nuns are among my absolute favourites. So, I was so pleased to be offered a copy of Veiled Desires by Maureen A Sabine which is published in August. This is an exploration of the way nuns have been portrayed in the movies from the 1940s to the present day. Among the movies discussed are Black Narcissus (that’s Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh on the cover), The Nun’s Story (Audrey Hepburn & the most distinguished cast of Sisters & Reverend Mothers ever seen in a movie, I think – Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Edith Evans, Rosalie Crutchley & Mildred Dunnock), In This House of Brede (Diana Rigg, Pamela Brown & Gwen Watford) & Change of Habit (Mary Tyler Moore with Elvis Presley as a doctor!). And those are just my favourites. Other movies include Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, Sea Wife & The Bells of St Mary’s.

My only problem is stopping myself from reading all three books straight away! I like to read & review books as close as I can to the publication date so I’m trying to forget that these gems are on my e-reader until it’s closer to publication day. Wish me luck!

The Christmas Angel – Marcia Willett

The Christmas Angel is the story of a year in the lives of an extended family living in Cornwall. Dossie was widowed early & lives with her parents in their house, The Court, where they once ran a B & B. Now, Dossie runs her catering company from home while caring for her elderly parents. Dossie’s son, Clem, gave up his theological studies when his young wife died in childbirth, leaving him to care for their son, Jakey. Clem has finally found a spiritual home at Chi-Meur, a religious community of just four sisters, Mother Magda, Sisters Emily, Ruth & Nichola. Clem is general handyman in exchange for a home for himself & Jakey, close to Dossie & far away from the frenetic life he lived in London. Finally he has the time to consider his future & decide if he wants to become a priest. Janna has also found a home at Chi-Meur. Abandoned by her parents, she has spent her life as a traveller, always moving on before she can settle down or be tied down. Independent, reserved but very caring, she becomes absorbed into the life of Chi-Meur.

The community at Chi-Meur has some hard decisions to make. The sisters are all elderly & Nichola is suffering from dementia. Should they think about moving to another community? Their house has become well-known for the spiritual retreats & seminars they run but how much longer can they keep going with no new professions likely? When they’re offered a good price to sell the house to a developer who wants to convert it into a hotel, it may be the answer to their dilemma but is the offer all it seems?

Dossie leads a busy life but romance hasn’t been one of her successes. She seems to fall for men who are married or shy of commitment. When she meets Rupert, an attractive man who buys & renovates country properties, she’s walking on air, singing Joni Mitchell songs & wondering if, at last, this could be the relationship she’s been searching for since her husband died.

Marcia Willett’s books are perfect comfort reading. She brings together a group of people the reader cares about & we’re happy to be in their company for a while. Location & atmosphere are always important. Most of her books are set in Cornwall & the West Country & she evokes the life of country families & small towns so well. I enjoyed all the characters in the book, especially Dossie’s parents with their dogs & their worries about their selfish son & his grasping partner. I loved the details of the sisters’ lives, especially Sister Emily with her joy in everyday pleasures & her determination to help everyone she comes in contact with. This is a perfect Sunday afternoon book. My only regret is that now I have to wait a year for the next one.

Thunder on the Right – Mary Stewart

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.