by Sharon Tucker
“It is curious how much more interest can be evoked by a mixture of gossip, romance and mystery than by facts.” —Eleanor Roosevelt
Comfort reads are always a necessity, and mine currently are romantic thrillers I read or meant to read some time ago (with the occasional sci-fi or fantasy novel thrown in for variety) and I do find them all most comforting. The world of the thrillers is something I recognize from my early years of getting lost in fiction and, as ever, with genre reading we recognize where we are and we like it or go home. Mary Stewart’s novels were my favorites, and I’ve read them all so I decided to explore others in the same vein. I’ll leave the hardboiled and noir mysteries for another day. Getting back into the romance mindset was fairly easy since I began by reading Lady of Mallow, AKA Samantha (1960), The Red Carnelian, AKA Red is for Murder (1943, 1969), and The India Fan (1988).
Early in my reading career, I remember picking up Dorothy Eden’s Lady of Mallow and reading a blurb on the book jacket that touted it as a book for those who loved Mistress of Mellyn, and I had to read no further. That description hooked me. Victoria Holt’s heroine, Martha Leigh, and the unsettling things that happened to her at Mellyn I found especially attractive because I was fairly prickly myself at the time and Martha was the epitome of prickliness. However, the plot of “Lady of Mallow” was not to my taste: rather dim heroine, married hero, unpleasant fiancé, murky, troublesome wife. Now giving the book a second chance, I read it to see if my judgement had been too abrupt or shallow. My conclusion: sort of. It was easier to read this time because I’m a bit more mature and not as susceptible to imposing my own values on what I read. I went along with the premise that the inheritance of an estate in Britain rests with the child of a thought-to-be lost heir. He shows up, wife and son in tow, to claim the inheritance. The next in line, a lawyer, believes the suddenly returned heir as an imposter and sends his fiancée in as a governess to see if she can discover what’s afoot. Well, all kinds of thing are indeed afoot, and the novel is entertaining.
Next came The Red Carnelian by Phyllis Whitney, an author I had never read. The premise of murder and mayhem in a Chicago WW II department store didn’t thrill me, but I did like that the main characters were artists involved in designing and implementing store window displays. I have always enjoyed reading about painters, designers, and artists in general. The story also worked for me because Whitney gives us an interesting spectrum of characters. From the intense artist who constructs the displays to the unpleasant murderee, from the sophisticated to the callow, her people are all believable. It had an engaging plot that developed logically, so I really was intrigued to find out who the murderer was and the outcome worked. I’d like to read more of her novels.
I was less than pleased when I tried to read more of Victoria Holt’s later standalones some years ago, finding that either I couldn’t like her characters and plots or I was still suffering from the same syndrome that Dorothy Eden’s Lady of Mallow gave me. Her Mistress of Mellyn also spoiled me, which is the best in the genre as far as I’m concerned. However, I’m happy to say that I found that voice I liked so much in the first Holt book I read to be here in The India Fan. Of course, the heroine was intelligent, independent, and refused to be at the mercy of the domineering gentry in the village where she and her vicar father lived. Her heroine kept her dignity as she worked within the margins of genteel society and adapted well to life in India in the midst of an entitled family that took her for granted. True to form, her childhood bond with the daughter and son of the ruling house developed according to the rules of the game of romantic novels. Part of its appeal to me is that at its best, it reminded me of M.M. Kaye’s “Shadow of the Moon” about much the same subject: the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 in India. Both are quite good in their way.
I wonder if I’d have come back to this genre had world events not taken their current turn and if I’d have given these authors another chance. Perhaps not but now that we are here, I’m glad to have so much to explore and so many escapes to enjoy.
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