We’re always pleased to see a post on this site from a reader’s perspective. Although Merrilee Robson is the author of both short stories and a first novel (2016’s Murder Is Uncooperative), she addresses here the question of what makes certain novels (or stories) stick in our minds. There are some spoilers in what follows, so beware, but we think you’ll find the post enlightening. Merrilee’s first short story for EQMM, “Edie,” is in our current issue (January/February 2020). Don’t miss it!—Janet Hutchings
I’m not a horse person.
I’m allergic. Not drop-dead allergic, but the kind of allergy that leaves me sneezing, wheezing, coughing, with runny eyes and nose after half an hour near any horse.
An encounter with a grumpy Shetland pony when I was a child left me with a bloody nose, a scar that didn’t fade until well into my adult years, and an aversion to riding.
So why, when we were planning a recent trip to Vienna, did I tell my husband that the one thing I really wanted to see while we were there were the Lipizzaner stallions, the famous white horses from the Spanish Riding School?
Well, it was because of a book.
Airs Above the Ground is a novel of romantic suspense by the late British author Mary Stewart, published in 1965. I read it a few years after its publication, but it was a book that affected me some fifty years after I read it.
Some writers are able to do that.
What makes a book have that kind of impact? During that trip, I tried to analyze what the author had done that captured my imagination so that I wanted to see those horses, despite the allergies?
I discovered Mary Stewart’s novels through The Moon-Spinners, a Walt Disney movie starring Hayley Mills. The movie had all the mystery and thrills of those childhood books, but with a hint of romance.
I was hooked. Although the main character in that movie was a teenager, the heroines in Mary Stewart’s novels are adults, but with the same sense of adventure I found with a teenage Nancy Drew or the English children in my favorite Enid Blyton books.
In Airs Above the Ground, Vanessa is a veterinarian. One who quit work when she got married, of course (it was the 1960s) but a character with training and skills that helped her worm her way into a community in a foreign country and solve the mystery.
She has a husband but he is part of the mystery, so Vanessa needs to be pretty self-sufficient, aided only by her sidekick, Timothy, a teenager she is chaperoning on a European visit and whose dreams of working at the Spanish Riding School provide much of the background on the horses.
“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.” One of my favorite opening lines. For me, the opening captures the protagonist perfectly. She is wry, a bit frustrated with her mother’s friend, but willing to help her out. In the space of time it takes to have tea at Harrod’s, the reader learns that Vanessa has argued with her new husband, that he is supposed to be in Stockholm but has been seen in Austria, and that Vanessa has suddenly agreed to a flying trip to Vienna.
In an interview later in her career, Mary Stewart described how she usually set her novels in places she had visited and loved. In Airs Above the Ground, she made a trip to Vienna specifically to research the horses and the Spanish Riding School. In rereading it, I found the “information dumps” a little obvious, but at the time, when travel to Europe was just a distant dream for me, I found it impossibly exotic.
Mary Stewart said that she wrote that kind of stories she wanted to read. Her Wikipedia entry claims she “developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations.” While developing the genre seems a bit of a stretch (there are earlier examples, but perhaps without such take-charge protagonists), she certainly wrote best-selling novels that captivated a generation of postwar readers who were ready for independent heroines and travel to locations, such as Greece, Lebanon, France, and Spain, that were now more accessible to middle-class tourists.
But that’s not it!
While all of these make the novel enjoyable, I think I remember this book because of a single scene that packs an emotional wallop.
In my memory, the moment when Vanessa is alone in a mountain meadow, caring for an old circus horse that was injured in a fire, is the climax of the novel.
In fact, it’s near the middle, but it’s both a pivotal moment in the plot and the moment when (spoiler alert) Vanessa realizes that the old horse was stolen many years ago from the Spanish Riding School.
Stewart describes the distant music from the circus in the valley below, how the horse raises his head and pricks up his ears at the sound, then starts to move in the precise, disciplined figures practiced by the stallions.
It was a travesty, a sick old horse’s travesty of the standing trot which the Lipizzaner had performed with such precision and fire, but you could see it was a memory in him, still burning and alive, of the real thing perfectly executed. In the distance the music changed. . . . And in the high Alpine meadow, with only me for an audience, old Piebald settled his hind hooves, arched his crest and tail, and, lame forefoot clear of the ground, lifted into and held the same royal and beautiful levade.
And that was it. I had tears in my eyes. The description of the old, injured horse remembering his glory days hit me like a sledgehammer and left an impression that lasted for decades.
Amazingly, it’s a true story, sort of. In an interview on a Scottish television program, Stewart described someone at work stopping by the side of the road and an old horse in a nearby field dancing to the music from her car radio.
That story affected Stewart so much that she asked if she could use it in a book. And she recreated it so vividly, that it led me, years later, to watch white horses going through their moves in Vienna.
I believe that it’s an emotional connection between the reader and a book that makes that book memorable. It’s tough to do but worth aiming for.
Writers are always happy when a reader tells them they love their book. But the best compliment is, “That was a story that will stay with me.”
Lovely essay! Mary Stewart has always been a favorite of mine as well. She had a wonderful knack for transporting the reader to exotic locales but also taking them on emotional journeys as well, like with the poignant scene above. A scene from “This Rough Magic” where the heroine is trying to save a stranded dolphin has always stayed with me, indelibly. Thanks for the link to the interview also, such a treat to hear her speak.
Thank you Maurissa. I remember the dolphin as well. A gripping scene.
I adore Mary Stewart and wish there were more of her books to read. Thank you!
Thank you, Vicki!
I also love Mary Stewart and this book in particular! Lovely to know the story about what inspired it. That was a wonderful moment in the book with the old horse moving to the music below.
Nancy, I was so pleased to find that interview and learn that the story was based on a real incident. Fascinating.
Lovely post. I visited the Isle of Skye because of Wildfire at Midnight, and the Pont du Gard because of Madam, Will You Talk.
Barbara, I think it’s very interesting that so many readers have decided to travel to the books’ settings. I’ve seen the Pont du Gard but not Skye yet.
Merrilee, you nailed this essay. I , too, loved Mary Stewart and Airs Above the Ground. I can remember reading the book as a teenager and can remember it, like you, as if it were yesterday. It led to a life long love of horses. I ride as often as I can and I “betcha” it had a lot to do with that book. A place or character in a book that touches us is a joy forever. Well written and thank you for sharing.
Excellent points, Merrilee.
I don’t know if you’re aware that AIRS ABOVE THE GROUND was an Edgar finalist in the “Best Novel” category for 1965. It was up against some pretty heavy-duty competition including Adam Hall’s THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (the winner), Len Deighton’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN, H.R.F. Keating’s THE PERFECT MURDER, Ross Macdonald’s THE FAR SIDE OF THE DOLLAR, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s THE PALE BETRAYER.
Jim, I did not know that. Thanks for sharing.
My sister and I dragged our mom to see the stallions dance when they toured the US. My sister loved horses. I loved this book.
Marianne, she seems to have done great advertising for the horses. Lot’s of us seem to have done the same thing.
A beautiful story, and even more fascinating that it’s based on a real event.
Susan, isn’t it amazing that it is based on a real event. I was so happy to learn that.