Sunday, October 21, 2012
63. The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart
On Labour Day weekend, my wife and I drove to cottage country in Ontario. Rather than take the main highway to Toronto and then up to the Georgian Bay, we decided to go through Ottawa. It's a slightly slower route, but much more scenic. Near the end, somewhere around the Kawartha's, in what was a mix of farm and vacation country, on an old two-lane highway, we saw a sign for "The World's Smallest Bookstore". Though a bit behind schedule, I had to stop. It turned out to be a small hobby farm with a trailer that was filled with bookshelves. Nobody was around but the squawking chickens in the coops next door. You basically took whichever books you wanted and left $3 for each one. They also sold eggs in the same manner, but the mini-fridge was empty. It was a very cool set-up and really got me excited. There were tons of old hardbacks. Unfortunately, the fiction was almost all Book Club editions of bestsellers from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, lots of bestsellers and obscure but mainstream novels that looked kind of bland. (Personally, I have no problem with Book Club editions, as they can often look just as nice as originals and sometimes have alternative designs with neat little tidbits.) I did find this Mary Stewart book as well as the first three Eric Amblers. So no major treasure, but a fun little discovery.
The Gabriel Hounds is one of her classic gothic thrillers. It's the story of a plucky young aristocratic woman on bus tour holiday in London. She runs into her favourite cousin, who has grown into a dashing young man. They share an eccentric aunt who fled to the middle east years before and had grown into a kind of crazy legend in the family and locally, as she took over an old Arabian Nights style castle. Both cousins had planned on paying her a visit, but because of unseen circumstances, our heroine goes first. She quickly finds things very suspicious in the compound, where Great-Aunt Harriet at first refuses to see her, communicated via a suspicious British man who claims to be taking care of her. Things get weird, adventure ensues (actually some pretty lively stuff compared to her last gothic thriller that I read), the two cousins realize they love each other (they are distant cousins, though the constant incest subtext is definitely weird) and papa shows up to whisk them back to their hotel rooms to get cleaned up and have some tea.
Again, her gothic thrillers are all slightly mild. The bad stuff going on isn't all that bad and you never feel that the protagonist is truly threatened. This one did have a really cool location, Dar Ibrahim, the aunt's compound, once a thriving castle for the local emir and now all rundown, with secret doors, an indoor pond and menagerie and all decorated with rotting, decaying furnishings of past arabic glory. And there was some pretty good violence (though none of it directed at the protagonist). I think I got a good taste for these kinds of books of hers and probably won't read any more (unless someone can recommend a particularly good one, on par with her Arthurian stuff). They are good, but not quite my cup of tea.