The Gabriel Hounds is set in the 1960s and narrated by twenty-two-year-old Christy Mansel who is on a tour of Syria and Lebanon. After unexpectedly meeting her cousin Charles in a street in Damascus, they decide to visit their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet who has lived near Beirut for several years. ‘Lady Harriet’, as she now calls herself, became a local celebrity after moving into an old, decaying palace by the Adonis River, dressing as a male Arab and modelling herself on the legendary Lady Hester Stanhope. Now over eighty years old, Harriet lives in seclusion with only her servants and her young English companion, John Lethman.
The cousins travel to the palace separately and Christy is first to arrive. She is not made to feel welcome but after a bizarre conversation with the old woman, she is allowed to spend the night there. It quickly becomes obvious that something is not right and when Charles joins her the next day they find that, in typical Mary Stewart fashion, they have stumbled upon a mystery!
Although Christy is in many ways very similar to Mary Stewart’s other heroines – beautiful, confident, brave and intelligent – I never managed to warm to her, or to her cousin Charles either. As Christy herself tells us at the beginning of the story, she and Charles both have “the ‘spoiled’ quality that we were so quick to recognise in one another; a flippant cleverness that could become waspish; an arrogance that did not spring from any pride of achievement but was, I am afraid, the result of having too much too young.” Luckily, though, the fact that I didn’t like the characters very much didn’t stop me enjoying the story and The Gabriel Hounds has joined Nine Coaches Waiting and The Moonspinners as one of my top three Mary Stewart novels so far.
As well as being an exciting page turner, I also loved the atmosphere and the unusual setting. The novel is very dated, I suppose – it’s hard to imagine young tourists like Christy wandering happily through the streets of Damascus and Beirut on their own today – but remembering that the book was written in the 1960s, they sound like fascinating places to have visited and Mary Stewart’s usual beautiful descriptions abound: the beauty of red anemones, the herds of goats grazing on the riverbanks, the scent of jasmine and roses, the fields of sunflowers grown for their oil.
The descriptions of the palace of Dar Ibrahim – with its labyrinth of dusty tunnels and corridors, wall mosaics, cracked marble floors and quiet courtyards – are wonderfully detailed and vivid, especially the scenes set in the old Seraglio, where Christy is given a room for the night. Then, of course, there’s the sound of Harriet’s saluki hounds howling in the distance as Christy explores the palace. Some parts of the book are quite creepy and there are some surprising plot twists too that made me want to immediately turn back and read previous sections again. The story also has what I’m coming to consider one of Stewart’s trademark dramatic, action-packed endings.
The final aspect of this novel I want to mention is the factual element. Lady Hester Stanhope was a real person and if you don’t know anything about her, I can almost guarantee that after reading this book you’ll be completely intrigued and will want to find out more about her amazing life, as I did. Mary Stewart has attributed a lot of Lady Stanhope’s characteristics and habits to the fictional Lady Harriet, including shaving her head and wearing a turban, and only admitting visitors to her room after dark. I’ve discovered that there’s a recent biography by Kirsten Ellis called Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope. Has anyone read it or is there another one you would recommend?