Catching up with some recent reading (of not-so-recent books): Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?, Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed and Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
Madam, Will You Talk? (1955) is Mary Stewart's first published novel, and, from the few others I've read, sets the tone for many of the others: an attractive young woman, an exotic location, some thrills and the inevitable love interest. In this instance, we have the wonderfully-named Charity Selbourne, Avignon, car chases and an is-he-isn't-he-a-murderer, Richard Byron.
Although a "romantic thriller", the scenery is both the most romantic and the most thrilling part, with the south of France beautifully evoked. There are crumbling ruins, glorious landscapes, even the cultural quirks and proclivities (every meal, coffee, wink of an innkeeper is rendered in affectionate detail). There's no crisis so critical that Charity can't stop and have a delicious omelet at a quirky roadside inn. In fact, if Madam has a moral, is it to always stop and have an omelet - or an aperitif. Rushing around leads to confusion and musses the hair. To be fair, there are worse lessons.
Madam isn't quite as twisty and turny as I would've liked; the 'reveal' is a bit obvious and the actual "whodunnit-and-why" is, rather clunkily, pondered out at length by the protagonists. That said, as well as the gorgeous setting, Charity's an impressive protagonist, especially for 1955. Although her taste in men is a little dubious, she's never outclassed nor outgunned, and, rather surprisingly (again, 1955!), doesn't shy from action. Madam also has one of the best car chases I've read, with Charity doing her best Bond impression on the back roads of France. Madam, Will You Talk? is "charming" - not a word I'd generally use to describe a thriller, but in this case, it feels right.
Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed (1959) is a dense little Western that combines the tropes of the genre with a surprising conclusion. Given the recent conversation about tropes in fantasy (see Sam Sykes' thoughtful blog post on the topic), this came as a convenient reminder that the growing pains of one genre can just as easily be found in another. Fantasy and Westerns make a good pair: two overtly macho, American-dominated genres that are often categorised solely as escapist entertainment (and, indeed, both genres often play 'down' to that level). But Westerns, I would argue, are a more mature genre - not in sales figures (despite the critical success of Westerns, they're still on the decline), but in the way the tropes have evolved. From epic to 'grimdark' to a synthesis of the two; archaic to contemporary to back again... pretty much everything fantasy has gone through in the past few decades, Westerns went through a half-century before.