Nine Coaches Waiting . . . for Mary Stewart, the Mother of Romantic Suspense

When I was in eighth grade, the Vice Principal called me to his office. Apparently, I had lost track of time during study hall in the school library and missed all of my afternoon classes. I’d never been in trouble before and didn’t know how to get to the Vice Principal’s office. So the librarian had to walk me down. And there I stood, trembling, with a book pressed against my chest.

The Vice Principal stood over me with a black beard and a scowl, like a dark storm cloud. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, praying he wouldn’t call my parents. “But it wasn’t my fault. I know it.” I was, after all, a straight A honor student and secretary of the Latin Club (which is probably why I didn’t have any dates until my Junior year in High School).

“What were you doing?” he asked.

Wanting to throw up, I held out my book and said, “I found this in the stacks and sat on the floor to read the first chapter to see if I liked it. And before I knew it, the last bell rang.” Then, much to my horror, I burst into tears.

The Vice Principal, a father of five girls, took the book out of my hands. “Ahh, Nine Coaches Waiting. Did you finish it?”

Finish it? I’d DEVOURED it. But I didn’t say that. I just snuffled and nodded.

Then with a wave of his hand, he dismissed me, saying, “Next time, don’t open any book by Mary Stewart until you know you have hours of free time ahead of you.”

So relieved, I ran from the office and left school. My dad usually picked me up at the public library across the street, but that day he was late and I had to wait an hour. That hour changed my life. Hidden deep in the fiction shelves, I found a world belonging to Mary Stewart, an author I’ve since learned is the “Mother of Classic Romantic Suspense”. With gothic overtones, bad boy heroes, and stories set in exotic places, I fell in love with a genre I had never heard of before. And the most wonderful thing about Mary Stewart was the number of her books on the shelf. That day, I checked out seven. And I found out the Vice Principal was right.

In less than a week, I read them all and went back for more.

Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was born in England on September 17, 1916. After receiving a B.A. and a M.A. in English, and working as an elementary school teacher during WWII, she married Frederick Henry Stewart in 1945. Although she continued teaching part-time, her husband encouraged her to start writing. In 1953, at the urging of her husband, she sent a manuscript for Madam, Will You Talk? which was accepted for publication by Hodder and Stoughton. The book, published in 1954, received wonderful reviews. From 1955  until 1980, she published one book a year, every one a bestseller. Since 1954, her books have never been out of print and a few were made into movies.

The element that drove her success–the same element that captured me during a school day and made me miss my classes–was her ability to craft a suspenseful mystery with a love story. This blending is so masterful, that neither the love story nor the mystery can stand on its own. One drives the other in a breathless pace of action, adventure, and romance.

In a time when there were few women authors writing commercial fiction, she quickly became one of the most important twentieth-century female authors, rivaling Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert). She was an author ahead of her time, not just with her romantic suspense novels, but with her best-selling Arthurian Fantasy series where she broke all the rules and made Merlin–not Arthur–the protagonist.

Ivy TreePam Regis writes in a A Natural History of the Romance Novel, “Stewart’s influence extends to every writer of romantic suspense, for Stewart understood and perfected this hybrid of romance and mystery and used it as a structure for books so beautifully written that they have endured to become part of the canon of the twentieth-century romance novel.” (Ch. 14 (pgs. 143-154)–Courtship and Suspense: Mary Stewart)

Her influence can still be seen today. In 2006, when Nine Coaches Waiting was reissued, Sandra Brown (one of my favorite authors) wrote the forward, stating, “With its cast of fascinating characters, its ominous setting, and its captivating plot, this story of suspense and romance entertains today, as it did half a century ago. Generations of readers have adored it. It’s the kind of haunting novel that one rereads every year or so. Other writers, this one included, have been inspired by Ms. Stewart’s style, but her incredible use of language can never be duplicated.” (Nine Coaches Waiting, Forward by Sandra Brown, Chicago Review Press, 2006, pp. iii – iv)

And the book that got me in so much trouble? I just bought a reprint for my daughter. But after she turned up her nose saying she doesn’t like historicals (i.e. stories that take place in the twentieth century), I took an afternoon last week, curled up with a cup of tea, and reread it. By the time I put it down, I discovered my husband and kids had fed themselves dinner and gone to bed. Without notice, I’d read from 2 PM until 11:30 PM. The afternoon and most of the night were gone, and I’d finished the book. Again.

For those readers interested, here is the back cover blurb from the William Morrow edition of Nine Coaches Waiting, 1959.

“The Chateau Valmy, rising in foursquare classical dignity from a wooded plateau in the Haute-Savoie, seemed like a dream come true to Linda Martin. Young, lovely, she had had little in her life to spark a genuine gift for love and laughter, but now, as English governess to nine-year-old Comte Philippe de Valmy, it would be easy to forget the tragedy of her father and mother, the drab orphanage years, the dreary school where she had taught. But tension was in the very air–at first negligible, then building to an unbearable degree, as does a gathering storm.

At its center was the young count’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, dynamic, arrogant, yet the epitome of charm, whose paralysis seemed little hindrance as he moved noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room–supervising, ordering, dominating everyone in sight, including his beautiful but unaccountably abstracted wife and his small, silent nephew and ward. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic young man who drove himself and his car with equal abandon, seemed able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul was an enigma. Though physically attracted to him, she sensed some dark twist in his nature…

And then one day deep in the woods there occurred a frightening, unaccountable incident–the first ripple to mar the calm, serene surface of an idyllic existence.”

And for those who just have to read the first line before you buy a book (which would be me), how can you not want to read a story that starts like this:

“I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” (Nine Coaches Waiting, Chapter 1, p. 3)

Now I’d love to know I’m not the only one who has lost time while lost in a novel. Has it ever happened to you? And which story was it?”

About Sharon Wray

Sharon is a three-time Daphne du Maurier winner and an eight-time RWA Golden Heart Romantic Suspense author repped by Deidre Knight and Kristy Hunter of The Knight Agency. She writes the Deadly Force romantic suspense series for Sourcebooks Casablanca and her first book come out next year.

Posted on October 9, 2012, in Author Spotlight, book recommendations, Sharon Wray and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. That was an adorable story about you at school! And this was a great post. I’m putting it up on my Facebook page to encourage people to read Mary Stewart. And as soon as I finish my book, I’m reading NINE COACHES WAITING again!!!

    :>)

    • Thanks so much, Kieran! I so clearly remember reading The Moon-Spinners and the entire Arthurian Trilogy on your parents’ porch at Wray’s Landing that summer during high school when I lived there and worked as a maid on Kiawah Island with your sister Devon. But I don’t remember what you were doing? Spending time with cute boys, perhaps?

  2. Haha! Yes, I was spending time with one cute boy in particular, but I cleaned some beach houses, too. I remember how much SAND was in the washing machines all the time!!!

    As for you and your reading tastes, it was one reason we Wray girls instantly bonded with you. Those were the years I read not only Mary Stewart but Victoria Holt. I still want to be Mistress of Mellyn. :>)

    • I just reread Pride of the Peacock and it brought back so many memories of lying on the beach and reading Victoria Holt for hours and hours. I want to be Mistress of Mellyn, too!

  3. Sharon, what a fun story! I remember reading Drums of Autumn (the second Outlander book, which I read first) and getting sucked right in. However, I was much older than junior high. 🙂

    • Those books were amazing! I didn’t find them until right after my babies were born so it took me years to read them–I only read during nap times. But I could have easily read them all in one sitting even if it took me days! Thanks for stopping by, Abigail!

  4. You hooked me with your title: “Mary Stewart”…aack! So busy these days and yet I have an incredible urge to buy her whole backlist and relive my teen years. (aka curled up on the sofa caught up in the romantic, slightly scary adventures of a heroine living as a governess in a gothic mansion.) SIGH!

    Wonderful blog, Sharon. I can just SEE you standing in front of the vice principal clutching that book.
    🙂

    • I was so scared, Sarah, I still remember standing there! I would love to curl up with her books on a sofa as well–especially on a snowy afternoon in the middle of winter with a fire and lots of hot chocolate. Alas, family and kids and other responsibilities will make that impossible in the near future. I read Jane Eyre about the same time I found Mary Stewart and I too wanted to live in a gothic mansion. 🙂

  5. What an amazing story! I think I like your principal! ;o) Isn’t it amazing what ‘hooks’ you and when? Thank you so much for sharing. In my youth, I did not read ‘romance’ novels, much preferring mysteries. But I’m adding her to my TBR list! ;o)

    • I am so jealous that you’ll get to read Mary Stewart for the first time. I have no doubt you’ll love her books. I agree with you about timing of finding books. I loved mysteries too at that age, especially Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. So when I was looking for more, I found Mary Stewart’s books in the Middle School library classified as gothic mysteries, probably because there were no graphic love scenes. All of the romance involved intense sexual tension which I must have responded to without being old enough to understand why. I really hope you enjoy them!

  6. At that age, my weaknesses were Alistair Maclean and Helen MacIness. Same type of stories…:)

  7. And Jill Tattersall, Eleanor Hibbert (Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Philippa Carr), and Phyllis Whitney. It’s not surprising that they all have wonderful current reviews up on Amazon even though they’re not writing anymore (or have passed away). Although the gothic suspense books aren’t as popular as they once were, hopefully these types of stories will never go away. At least we have a backlist of talented authors we can always turn to. Thanks for coming by today, William!

  8. Lovely story about Nine Coaches Waiting. Most of my lost in a book stories involve starting the first chapter at before bedtime and then realizing that I’ve been reading for 3 hours and now I have to work on 4 hours of sleep 🙂

    • Ugh! I hate it when that happens and you spend the next day not only walking around like a zombie, but desperate to get back to the book which means another sleepless night. But those good books are so worth it!

  9. Sharon, what a fabulous story! I hate to admit I’ve never read Mary Stewart, although I remember my stepmom had several of her books. I read a bunch of Agatha Christies at that age, and loved Mary Higgins Clark. It sounds like I would have loved Mary Stewart then – but what a treat to get to enjoy her now!

    The first book I remember reading in one sitting was Phantoms by Dean Koontz. I was in 7th or 8th grade, and I’d read it so fast I had to immediately read it again so I could savor it the second time.

    Now I have a daughter (7th grade) who reads every book twice because she just can’t read a book she’s enjoying slowly the first time.

    • I can’t believe, with your background in archaeology, that you’ve never read these books. You will LOVE them. Mary Stewart’s husband worked for the English government and she spent a lot of time traveling, especially around the Greek Isles. And many of her books are set in these exotic places with lots of history thrown in.
      And I remember reading Phantoms–I was so scared I made my sister sleep in my room that night.

  10. Sharon: Love your story, and your principal’s line “Next time, don’t open any book by Mary Stewart until you know you have hours of free time ahead of you” is awesome. I’m glad he understood.

    I can’t believe I never read NINE COACHES WAITING! I read a lot of Mary Stewart as a teen, but I really gravitated toward her books like MY BROTHER MICHAEL (which I recently reread), THE STORMY PETREL, and ROSE COTTAGE. I didn’t realize I was reading romantic suspense, but I loved her way with characters and setting.

    I’ve been lost in a book so many times, I couldn’t begin to name one in particular. I was always getting in trouble for staying up too late reading, and now I can pass hours in the blink of an eye. I opened up a Suzanne Brockmann book the other day, just to refresh my memory on it, and ended up reading for two hours. Dinner was late. 😉

    When I went back to grad school, I only read during winter and spring break or summer. I knew if I picked up a book I’d never do my homework!

    • I loved My Brother Michael, Gwen. I think it’s my second favorite book after Nine Coaches. I envy my younger self now because, like you, I spent many teenage hours lost in a book. Now I have to do things like carpools, laundry, and make dinner. I know you’d love Nine Coaches Waiting. Maybe you can hide away somewhere and read it without anyone missing you–just tell them you’re food shopping in Winchester!

  11. So hilarious because I JUST started re-reading my favorite, The Moon-Spinners, for the 20th time last night! My mother was a huge fan and got me hooked. I believe I read all Stewart’s novels, both the romances and the Arthurian ones, between the ages of 12 and 16.

    *waving to Gwen*

    • I’ve met so many people who’ve read Mary Stewart’s books not just a few times, but in the “twenty to thirty” times! I loved the Arthurian novels as well and they reminded me very much of the Anya Seton books I read about the same time. Do you remember the Disney movie version of The Moon-Spinners? It wasn’t as good as the book (of course) but it wasn’t bad either.

  12. Awesome! I love me some Mary Stewart, and have my own Nine Coaches Waiting readin’ here: http://sarahtales.livejournal.com/198408.html

    • Sarah, I laughed so hard at your summary! It was wonderful. As an adult, I too have some frustrations with the fifties-inspired young heroine, but I don’t remember caring or noticing those things when I was fourteen. Thank you so much for sharing that link and I hope others reading here today will check it out as well! (And I love your last name–Brennan is my maiden name :))

  13. Thank you for such a lovely post on Mary Stewart. My mom got me hooked on her and I spent the summer after my freshman year of college blissfully immersed in her worlds. Blew through the whole lot and have been rereading them ever since. MADAM, WILL YOU TALK? was my gateway book. But I may have read NINE COACHES WAITING the most times. 🙂

    • I loved Madam, Will You Talk as well. I think it was the third book of hers I read. I have to admit that I felt better about my own writing journey when I found out it took her 8+ years to write, submit, and get that book published. But, like you, Nine Coaches Waiting is my favorite. 🙂

  14. I’ve lose time on a regular basis because I’m reading. After being particularly recalcitrant while reading Huck Finn, my parents threatened to get a switch (parents did that when I was young) if I didn’t stop reading and go out and play. They worried I wouldn’t get enough vitamin D if all I did was stay inside and read 🙂

    I’ve never read a Mary Stewart…but Moon-Spinnners I know as one of my favorite movies from my childhood- starring the wonderful Hayley Mills. I just Googled, and yes, the movie was based on the Mary Stewart novel. Thanks for a great blog, Sharon!

    • I just recently watched that movie again and then went and ordered the reissued book. I haven’t read it yet, but hope to do so soon. I had to laugh at your story! I was the same way. Finally, my parents figured out that they couldn’t ground me because I wanted nothing more than to hide in my room and read. So instead they came up with the horrible torture of “being social”. If I did anything wrong, they’d drop me at a football game or party and leave me there with orders to talk to at least two people. It was horrible!

  15. What a great tribute to Mary Stewart! I read her Arthurian series a long time ago, but somehow missed all the rest of her books.

    Sharon, your story of getting lost in a book in the school library reminded me of my sophomore year in college when I was supposed to be studying for my organic chemistry final and just could not stop reading SHOGUN. I definitely should have waited until summer break to start that one.

    • Oh my gosh, Krista–Shogun is a gazillion pages long and organic chemistry is the hardest course ever conceived by college professors. I hope you passed! Knowing what you write, I’m sure you’d love Mary Stewart’s writing style. She is a master wordsmith and her pacing is perfect. May I suggest . . . Nine Coaches Waiting? 🙂

  16. I didn’t think that anyone read her ( Mary Stewart) books anymore. I read pretty much all of them years ago. I even have a few in my possession. So glad to hear that people can still read her books!!!!!!!!

    • I was amazed when I went to check out her books on Amazon. One of her reviews was from a few days ago! She has hundreds of reviews, many of them current, on all of her books. Most of them have been reissued within the past five years and are still bestsellers. I also couldn’t believe how many fan sites are devoted to her. Even Meg Cabot is a fan and she wrote the forward for the newly reissued Madam, Will You Talk. I thought that was so cool. I want to be Meg Cabot when I grow up! 🙂

  17. Sharon, thanks for reminders of many fun times reading Mary Stewart’s books. I must have read them all along with the other greats you mentioned, especially Victoria and Phyllis. Once bitten with the suspense bug, a “plain” love story just doesn’t cut it for me. You were so lucky with your principal. He was a jewel! My story goes back to when I was just a kid. I was reading a Dana Girls Mystery–like Nancy Drew, but they were twins. One of my parents told me to do the dishes. My response, “In just a minute.” Thirty minutes later, I hadn’t budged. This went on a couple of times until said parent removed the book from my hands. LOL It’s magical when you get to disappear that way in a foreign land or small town USA or wherever. Isn’t it cool that the books are being reprinted for a new generation! Now that’s writing!

    • I remember the Dana Girls Mysteries! They were wonderful as well. I recently bought a book about writing by Phyllis Whitney. And while it was very dated, she gave a detailed description of how she got published, how hard she worked on revisions, how she fought with her editor, and I loved the part where she knew she was an author who had graduated in her publishing house from mid-list to bestseller. She said as a bestseller, she no longer had to white out her mistakes and retype them–the publisher gave her an assistant for that. I laughed so hard I almost fell of the couch!
      And yes, it is so cool–and I’m so happy–so many of these books are being reprinted or at least made available in ebook form. Thanks for stopping by today!

  18. Wonderful memories! I think my favorite was Phyllis Whitney (and yes, her Guide to Writing Fiction is still a treasure), but I read Holt and Stewart, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, and (hi, Will!) Alastair MacLean and Helen McInnes, too. Don’t get me started, I’ll be making lists all night. What happened to all that reading time I used to have?

    • I know the time issue well, Kay! It’s so hard to keep up with all the new books as well as rereading all the old ones, especially now that they are being reissues in both print and eBook form. Do you remember Jill Tattersall? I loved her gothic suspense books as well!

      • Complete blank on Tattersall. Don’t remember her at all. I did read Mary Roberts Rhinehart (my mom was the Ultimate Mystery Fan and introduced me to all of them). She was borderline Gothic, I think, and famous for her Had I But Known plots.

  19. Mary Stewart set the bar so high; I reread her books from time to time. The first one I read was The Ivy Tree, which I checked out only because the heroine shared my name. I started it at the beginning of a day-long road trip. When I finished it I was so amazed by the masterful GENIUS way she fooled me that I turned around and reread it right then!

    • I loved The Ivy Tree as well. Since Nine Coaches was the first one I read, I think it will always be my favorite. But I still reread her books, now as an author who is trying to decipher the genius in her writing!

  20. Susanna M. Lundgren

    Ha! I too studied Latin in high school, lost track of time inside many a book through childhood, and particular in my 20’s upon encountering Nine Coaches for the first time. Recently, I found a 1959 copy on our local “free table” and find myself captured all over again. Oh, the beautiful language and literary references, the seasoning of French, and the spell she weaves: her heroine at once innocent and sophisticated, untried but savvy and bold. And no tacky grammar or pop syntax to spoil the magic.

  21. I remember reading The Moonspinners as a young teen in the 60’s and falling in love with the suspense, story and fantastic heroine! For many years I always said Mary Stewart was my favorite author. About 5 years ago I decided to re read all her novels. To my surprise none of them seemed familiar (my book memory is not THAT bad). To my chagrin I surmised I had only read The Moonspinners and nothing else! So began a delightful several years of tracking down her books and reading them for the first time!! Nine Coaches Waiting became my favorite the moment I finished it (which didn’t take long). I only have one more (Gabriel Hounds) and will have read them all.

    Recovering from a nasty cold, I’ve decided to snuggle in with Madam, Will you Talk. Found a HB edition (1956), first American printing last year and in very good shape. The dust jacket has marvelous reviews! 😍

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