Meet Mary Stewart, Queen of Romantic Suspense

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Mary Stewart is a mid-century British author who helped establish the romantic suspense genre in the 1950s, and contributed to the resurgence of the fantasy novel in the 1970s with her Merlin trilogy. She is a gifted and classy writer with a long career, and I can’t wait for you to “meet” her now!

Collage with black-and-white photo of Mary Stewart and three novel covers

For the well-read woman, there is nothing quite so sweet and thrilling as discovering a new favourite author. You think you have a pretty good grasp on the books and authors you like, and then bam, a new author drops into your life and you rush to make room on your shelves.

Where have you been all my life? You ask. But they’ve come at precisely the right time, just when you were poised to be a perfect match. And now you have all their books to look forward to, like a deliciously anticipated vacation.

I’m sure this has happened to you, Reader, and if it hasn’t, then it’s my fondest wish that the books mentioned here at Tea and Ink Society will spark that zest for you!

For my own part, Mary Stewart was just such an author who quickly became a favourite when I discovered her a few years back.

Mary Stewart isn’t an author you find on required school reading lists or “100 Great Classics.” She’s one you must hear about from a loyal fan, or perhaps that you stumble upon deep in the library stacks, or tucked lovingly on your aunt’s bookshelf. But that’s not because she isn’t good. In a way it makes it all the more fun to read her books, because you feel as if you’re a shareholder in a secret treasure that the masses don’t possess.

Although she wrote a handful of children’s stories and poetry, Mary Stewart is better known for her bestselling Arthurian legend series and her fifteen standalone novels, which fall under the broad genre of romantic suspense. Stewart didn’t like pigeon-holing her novels into a strict genre; instead, she claimed she was simply a “teller of tales.”

What you’ll find in all of Mary Stewart’s standalone novels is varying doses of mystery and intrigue, always with a satisfying dash of romance. Stewart’s writing is intelligent and stylish, with evocative settings and independent, gutsy heroines who often have to work their way out of dangerous situations. (A bit like Nancy Drew for grownups.) Her earlier books supply greater drama and thrills and are more Gothic in tone, while her later novels are gentler but still masterfully plotted.

Mary Stewart paperback novels on a table
Here’s my recent haul of Mary Stewart paperbacks from McKay’s Used Books in Chattanooga.

My own introduction to Mary Stewart began with Stormy Petrel, which is a perfect rainy day read. It’s actually one of her less popular novels, but it was enough to make me want more!

For an author comparison, I would say Mary Stewart is akin to Daphne du Maurier. If you like the novel Rebecca, it’s a safe bet to say you’ll like Mary Stewart. Both du Maurier and Stewart employ psychological suspense, but a lot more happens in Stewart’s novels.

For a modern-day author equivalent, I would actually compare Stewart to Ruth Ware. Like Stewart, Ware borrows from a variety of genres and can’t be easily pigeonholed. Setting and atmosphere are integral to the style of both authors. Using first-person narration, both authors give you an intimate picture of their characters’ psychological state (although Ware’s heroines are far less stable and reliable).

Mary Stewart Biography

Mary Stewart was a British novelist, born right in the middle of World War I to the Rainbow family. (As a clergyman, her father fulfilled duties at home rather than abroad.) Stewart studied English at Durham University. Her academic background is evident in her novels–literary allusions are plentiful and it’s a delight to collect them as you read.

Mary met her husband Frederick at a VE Day celebration dance in 1945. It was a costume party, and Frederick was unselfconsciously wearing a girl’s gym tunic, lilac socks, and a red hair ribbon. It was pretty much love at first sight, and the couple were married three months later.

Frederick Stewart was fervently supportive of his wife’s writing, and encouraged her to submit the manuscript of her debut novel Madam, Will You Talk? to Hodder & Stoughton. The story was serialized in 1954 and published in book form the following year. After that, Mary Stewart was fairly prolific, publishing a novel every year or two for the next four decades. She had a lovely tradition where she would buy herself a new piece of jewelry to celebrate each novel’s debut.

The Stewarts weren’t able to have children, but led a busy life between Mary’s writing career and Frederick’s position as chairman of the Geology Department at the University of Edinburgh. They divided their time between Edinburgh and their home in the Scottish Highlands on Loch Awe.

Here are some pictures of their Loch Awe residence, which itself looks like something out of one of Mary Stewart’s novels!

Mary Stewart's home above scenic Loch Awe

Mary Stewart's home - a fairytale-esque castle

Exterior shot of Mary Stewart's home

Library inside Mary Stewart's home

Sitting room with a blue-tiled fireplace in Mary Stewart's home

The Stewarts had many adventures traveling abroad to places that Mary would later use as settings for her books. At home, they enjoyed a private life and shared interests around gardening, nature, art, and their beloved family pets. 

Frederick Stewart died in 2001, and Mary passed away on May 9, 2014 at the age of 97.

Black and white photograph of Frederick and Mary Stewart in 1975
The Stewarts in 1975.

Mary Stewart novels in chronological order, by genre

Romantic Suspense

Because setting is so important and vividly drawn in each of Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, I’ve made notes of where each is set. So, if you’d like to take a literary “trip,” pick your destination!

Madam, Will You Talk? (1955) – set in Provence, France
Wildfire at Midnight (1956) – set on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Murder mystery elements.
Thunder on the Right (1957) – a Gothic novel set in the Pyrenees in France
Nine Coaches Waiting (1958) – elements of Gothic, fairy tale, and fugitive story. Set in the mountainous Savoy region of France.
My Brother Michael (1959) – set in mainland Greece
The Ivy Tree (1961) – an impostor/mistaken identity story set in Northumberland, England
The Moon-Spinners (1962) – set in Crete (there is a 1964 movie starring Haley Mills that is loosely based on the book. I enjoyed the film.)
This Rough Magic (1964) – set in Corfu
Airs Above the Ground (1965) – a murder mystery with a touch of espionage, set in Austria
The Gabriel Hounds (1967) – set in Syria and Lebanon
The Wind Off The Small Isles (1968) – a novella set in the Canary Islands, Spain
Touch Not the Cat (1976) – set in the Malvern Hills in the West Midlands of England. Fantasy/supernatural elements.
Thornyhold (1988) – set in Wiltshire in South West England. Fantasy/supernatural elements.
Stormy Petrel (1991) – set on a fictional island in the Hebrides of Scotland
Rose Cottage (1997) – a gentle mystery of family secrets, set in a small village in the North of England

Short Stories

The Lost One (1960) – set in Northumberland. It’s a prequel to The Wind Off The Small Isles.
The Loch (1971) – a narrative essay that describes the natural beauty of Scotland

Arthurian Novels

The first three titles make up the Merlin Trilogy. The Wicked Day is about Mordred, and The Prince and the Pilgrim is a standalone novel that takes place during Arthur’s reign.

The Crystal Cave (1970)
The Hollow Hills (1973)
The Last Enchantment (1979)
The Wicked Day (1983)
The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)

Children’s Books

The Little Broomstick (1971) – This was recently made into an anime movie titled Mary and the Witch’s Flower. If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli or Hayao Miyazaki films, you’ll love this, too.
Ludo and the Star Horse (1974)
A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980)
The Castle of Danger (1981) – children’s version of Nine Coaches Waiting

Poetry

Frost on the Window and Other Poems (1990)

Finding Used Mary Stewart Books

Any time you’re in a used book store, I’d suggest checking for Mary Stewart. But remember how I said that she can’t be pigeonholed into one particular genre? That makes it a bit tricky to locate her in the book store. You’ll have to check the mystery, romance, general fiction, and old/rare books sections to ensure you’re thoroughly canvassing the shop for Mary Stewart’s romances! And then you’ll have to check fantasy for her Arthurian books and the children’s literature section for her juvenile titles!

Of course, you can always do an internet search of her name and titles to find used copies online.

Best Mary Stewart Book Covers

There have been many editions of Mary Stewart’s novels over the years, some better than others. You might happen upon a vintage cover you love, but if you want a uniform set that’s readily available, the 2017 Hodder & Stoughton reissues are the best, in my opinion! They’re inspired by vintage travel posters. Here’s a sampling:

To dig deeper on Mary Stewart, I recommend the Mary Queen of Plots blog. It’s no longer updated, but if you browse through the archives you’ll learn lots of fun backstory on Mary Stewart and her writings, as well as see cover art through the decades.

So, have I inspired you to read Mary Stewart? Or if you’re already a fan, tell me what your favourite Mary Stewart novel is! If you know someone who would be interested to learn about Mary Stewart, please share this post with them!

Meet Mary Stewart, Queen of Romantic Suspense
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51 Comments

  1. I love those vintage covers! I really liked Rebecca so I need to check out Mary Stewart now. Thanks for the post!

    1. There have been some kind of silly/dated Mary Stewart covers in the past, but thankfully some good ones too! Definitely check out Mary Stewart…you can’t go wrong if you’re already a fan of du Maurier! (And I actually like Mary Stewart even better.)

  2. Yes, I’ve been a fan of Mary Stewart for years. Probably, my favourite is Madam, Will You Talk; but I’ve enjoyed them all.I hooked my daughter on her novels years ago and recently discovered her re-reading one. She laughed and said it was her ‘go to’ novel when she needed to relax with a good book.

    1. That is wonderful that you’ve passed on Mary Stewart to your daughter! I can’t wait to do that for my daughter and nieces(: I haven’t read Madam, Will You Talk but I own it now so it’s biding its time on my shelf.

  3. Mary Stewart is one of my favorite authors. I started reading her way back in the 1970’s when my mother was reading her Arthurian trilogy and gave them to me to read, too. I enjoyed reading about her life. I think I’m due for a reread of her books.

    1. How neat! When I discovered her, I was glad to find that she’d written so many books! It’s always a little sad to have a beloved author who only wrote a few things…(cough, Charlotte Bronte).

  4. Mary Stewart has been a favorite author for decades (gulp!). The Arthurian novels were my original favorites, but I also love Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam Will You Talk, and Touch Not the Cat. I have shared the Arthurian novels with my son, and now my nephew.

    1. If you’ve been reading Stewart for decades, does that mean you read her 90s novels when they first came out? I think it would be so neat to follow an author through the years and read her work at different stages of your life!

  5. I’ve only recently discovered Mary Stewart’s name, so this is so timely! I just got The Ivy Tree from the library and am so excited to discover a brand new author. Thanks for the helpful summary!

    1. You’re welcome! I love The Ivy Tree. I really didn’t know where it was going to end up, and I was super impressed with what Mary Stewart did with the plot. It’s an impostor/mistaken identity story, so if you enjoy it then you should also check out Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey and The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier.

  6. I did read a bit. In the early nineties, I was just starting a family, so a lot of reading fell by the wayside. Trying to play catch-up now though!

  7. Some how the description of Mary Stewart’s novels reminds me of Elizabeth Peters early stand alone supernatural romance mysteries. They feel dated, but not in a bad way. More in a charming, armchair time-travel way.
    I’m thoroughly intrigued and looking forward to finding my first Mary Stewart book soon!

    1. I have read one Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters), and I can definitely see how fans of Stewart would be fans of hers, and vice versa. But I liked Mary Stewart better(; I hope you enjoy her novels!

  8. I am reading Rebecca fir the first time and I think I read Mary Stewart’s The Moonspinners many years ago. Just a question I have based on your mention of the fact that Mary Stewart is not as well-known as Daphne du Maurier and many people dont know about her. Why do you think that is?

    1. That is a great question! I’m not really sure, but I have a few theories: 1. du Maurier’s father was also a successful author, and that might’ve given her an “in” with the publishing world. 2. du Maurier’s books are more gender neutral and could thus have a wider audience. Stewart’s books seem more geared towards women and feature female leads. 3. Alfred Hitchcock made an Oscar-winning film of Rebecca, and another film of The Birds, but not of any of Stewart’s books(:

  9. Thank you for your recommendations! I can’t keep ahead of my adult readers (my nine children now range from 2-23), and they love books for gifts, so I come here often for clean, well-read literature I can recommend to my family. I’m usually looking for character-building books, but we’re always game for some just-for-fun rainy day reads, too, especially with winter coming on us soon. I have a bid in on 3 Stewart hardcovers on ebay. Nobody bid against me! 🙂

    1. You’re welcome! Mary Stewart is so much fun, but she is also a gifted writer with a powerful use of language, beautiful scenic descriptions, and literary allusions that are like Easter eggs for well-read readers to find!

  10. My mother collected Mary Stewart novels and I loved them growing up. I read the ones with the covers you posted in your first picture. Another author I loved that you might like too is Victoria Holt. You’ve encouraged me to reread them again! Especially I have now been to some of those foreign settings.

      1. I used to read a lot of Victoria Holt in my teens, mostly because it used to be serialised in the Woman or in Woman’s Own magazines. (Victoria Holt also wrote under the pseudonyms Jean Plaidy and Philippa Carr and about twenty others!) But on re-reading, I would say Mary Stewart was a far better writer. If you want something similar, I think the M.M.Kaye “Death in…” novels are quite close in style.

        1. Thanks! I haven’t read any MMKaye yet, so I’ll check those out! I did read one Victoria Holt and I agree, it was fun but definitely not up to Stewart standards!

  11. I read Mary Stewart books beginning in the early 1960s. I still keep copies of her books on my bookshelves. I adored reading her newest book as it debuted.

    1. Oh, I envy you that experience of reading her books freshly minted! I’m so glad Hodder & Stoughton is reprinting her books for new fans!

  12. I discovered Mary Stewart when I was in my teens in the 1960s & fell in love at 1st read. I think my 1st was “My Brother Michael”. I was lucky enough to be able to read her later books as they were published, tho, like many, I was disappointed in her later books (Thornyhold, Stormy Petral & Rose Cottage). I liked the Merlin books, but not as much as the others. Recently I downloaded them on to my Kindle & was surprised to discover that all these years I’d been reading (and re-reading) the US versions. The Kindle versions are the UK versions and there are some very interesting differences! Because of Mary Stewart, I also discovered Victoria Holt (and a whole slew of others who were writing the then very popular “gothis” genre), then Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, Phyllis Whitney and one who is even lesser known, Isabelle Holland. She is hard to find, but Amazon has many of her books available used. They are worth a read!

    1. I don’t think I’ve heard of Isabelle Holland! Also, that’s interesting about there being differences between UK and US versions! Mary Stewart is NOT one of those authors who had to grow on me, as some do. Definitely love at first read here, too(:

  13. I have adored Mary Stewart’s books since 1964 when I belonged to the Book Club at age sixteen and first read, This Rough Magic. I was so enthralled with the magical story that I was up all night (for the first time in my young life) finished the book. I just couldn’t put it down. And then, of course, Airs Above the Ground and The Gabriel Hounds, which I loved. Then life interfered, and I married and lived in Germany for a few years, then moved back to the States and didn’t get to read all the rest of her suspense/romance novels until about 12 years ago, still thinking her the best in her genre. I think I can understand why people were disappointed with the later novels in the 90’s because by then she was much older and maybe it was a bit harder for her to come up with the “magic” of her earlier writing. I still think she’s the best. And I do love Elizabeth Peters quite a lot but Mary is the best.

    1. It’s so neat to me to hear from an older generation of Mary Stewart fans…to connect with you…and I’m proud to carry on the torch! Even though her later novels don’t quite have the magic, Stormy Petrel was my first and it was enough to get me hooked! There’s this brilliant long extended scene where people are coming in and out of Rose’s cottage with all these unsaid things below the surface and the night’s getting more and more tangled up. It reminded me of Shakespeare and made me realise “this author is brilliant!”

  14. How lucky you are to have just discovered Mary, Lady Stewart. I first read her when I was 14 and in high school, probably in 1964. A boy in my study hall passed me “The Moon Spinners”, which he had just finished, and I was hooked. Mary Stewart novels were a hit with all my classmates, my sister and cousin. We couldn’t wait till each of her books came out in paperback so we could buy it, which was generally a year after the hardback copy was published. I believe she had an effect on the kind of young women we became, her heroines were so admired. My favorites are still the earlier romantic suspense; Madam, Will You Talk, Wildfire at Midnight, The Moon Spinners, This Rough Magic, Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and Airs Above the Ground. What marvelous romantic adventures she gave to the world. Enjoy!

    1. I love that. I love picturing friends and classmates passing Stewart books around, discussing them, waiting for them…wish that could’ve been me! But I love being “in the know” now, and you can be certain I’ll pass Lady Stewart’s books along to my own teenagers someday!

  15. Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Jane Aiken Hodge, M.M. Kaye…I read them all, right along with Mary Stewart. Isabelle Holland, mentioned above is new to me, and I need to check out two of the later Mary Stewarts that I don’t recall reading. Such fun! Such memories!

    Anyone a Georgette Heyer fan? Hers are regency romances and some interesting mysteries.

    1. I haven’t read many from those other authors you mention, so it’s nice to know there are a lot of fun reads ahead of me! I know for sure we have some Georgette Heyer fans here…and her name often comes up in the Facebook group!

  16. I grew up reading Mary Stewart books and loved them all, I was initially disappointed in her last books – ThornyHold, Rose Cottage, Stormy Petrel. They seemed ‘slight’ books compared to her earlier fiction. BUT, over time, Thornyhold has caught me fast and is now my favorite book. The author’s descriptions and scene setting and characters have wormed their way into my heart. I re-read it with deep pleasure. She brings me English sunshine on a cloudy day.

    1. It is interesting to see how her approach changed somewhat over the years! I haven’t read Thornyhold yet, but I’m glad to hear it offers so much. One of my criteria for favourite books is how well they hold up to re-reading.

  17. I discovered Mary Stewart as a pre-teen in the 1980s because of the Disney movie, ‘The Moon-spinners.” I loved the movie and then found the book. And, just as you described, I discovered that Mary Stewart’s books were like Nancy Drew adventures for adults. I’ve read every book beginning with Madam, Will You Talk? through Touch Not the Cat. I find that I’m always looking for elements of her plots and writing style when I’m looking for new books to read. Because of Mary Stewart, I’ve enjoyed Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Joan Aiken Hodge, Madeleine Brent, MM Kaye and a host of more recent authors who write about smart women who find themselves in Nancy Drew-type situations.

    1. I’m reading The Moonspinners right now! I saw the movie years ago before Mary Stewart was on my radar. After I’m done with the book I’ll have to go back and re-watch.

  18. I wouldn’t say that Mary Stewart is a “lesser-known” author, at least not here in the U.S. I discovered Mary Stewart back in the 1970s when we were assigned to read The Crystal Cave in high school. After reading it, I went straight to the bookstore and got every single book of hers they had in stock. I’ve been reading her over and over for more than forty years! I even managed to find some signed first editions which I treasure. I love Daphne Du Maurier too, but I think there is quite a difference in their writing. Mary Stewart has so much humor in her books, and I can’t say that I ever found humor in Du Maurier. Du Maurier is much more dark, if that makes sense. There just isn’t anyone who compares to Lady Stewart when it comes to her descriptive abilities, whether it be the landscape (or the history of said landscape), a person, a house, or what the heroine is eating. Sadly, I just don’t believe there will ever be another writer like her.

    1. Wow! Signed first editions! A treasure, indeed! I think Mary Stewart is lesser known in my generation, for sure. And growing up, I never saw her on the bookshelves of any adult friends or relatives (I was a habitual bookshelf scanner!) But there ARE a lot of people like you who already love her and were lucky enough to grow up reading her books! You are so right about Stewart managing to infuse humor in her novels, which she does without breaking the pace of the plot. I immediately tried to think of examples of humor in Du Maurier, but you’re right–nothing comes to mind! Do you have a favourite Mary Stewart novel?

  19. She was a pretty big deal back in the 70s when I first started reading her (Hollow Hills), but like a lot of my favorite authors from that time she’s indeed been largely forgotten. Glad to see someone discovering her.

  20. I know I’m late to the party, but recently I read a description that mentioned if you’re fans of “So&So’s” books you’ll also love Mary Stewart. Or fans of S&S love this. So, I was delighted to come across this & get some insight into the Author & I’m really excited to try her out!

    1. Oh, neat! I’m glad my post was there to help! Mary Stewart is amazing. Every time I read another of her books I’m super impressed all over again. Let me know what you read by her, and if you like it!

  21. I just finished the Ivy Tree, and I’m sad I haven’t another novel of her at hand immediately:-) She really gave me back a deep joy in reading which I had lost. I also literally escaped from my winter blues. So I will hurry to order another classy, well written and ‘kind to the mind’ book of hers.

    1. What a wonderful testament to her books! She does give a deep joy in reading, yes. So true. If you can get your hands on a copy, I also recommend Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. It’s interesting to read and compare to The Ivy Tree. Both are doppelganger stories, but Brat Farrar is a different take. Or more like The Ivy Tree is a different take, and Brat Farrar is the expected take. Stewart really surprised me with Ivy Tree in such a pleasant way! They are both great novels, though.

  22. Another great read! Ms. Stewart is one of my favorites. I read Touch Not The Cat back in the days when magazines had serialized novels. Later on, I read the Moonspinners. I too enjoyed the film. Our town library has several of her books and I just recently finished The Stormy Petrel Gothic Mystery/Romance is one of my favorite genres. I too enjoy Daphne Du Maurier’s books and count all of hers among my favorites.

    1. Oh, I wish I could read Mary Stewart novels in serialized form! That would’ve been delightful to have a bit more of the story to look forward to each time! I haven’t read all of her books yet, because it kind of makes me sad to think of having no new ones left to read…but I can always keep re-reading, right?

  23. Yes, re-reading Mary Stewart’s novels is nearly as good as the first time. Such a treat. She had such a literate, intelligent style of writing that is pure joy to indulge in. And if you have a love of travel, the exotic locales she takes you to add to the pleasure. To me, Mary Stewart truly is a magical read.

  24. How wonderful that you are a writer! I hope you achieve your dreams and will look forward to reading your stories.

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