Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

16 thoughts on “Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

  1. whatmeread says:

    I always thought that this might be one of her earlier books, particularly because the hero and heroine are less appealing, and it is her third published novel. Nevertheless, I wonder if she wrote it earlier and was unable to get it published until after the first two. It just seems less accomplished.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I have fond memories of a holiday with my family up in the Pyrenees, based in Luz St-Sauveur and motoring up to the cirque Gavarnie and Roland’s Breach (even a quick dip in a glacial pool!) so good to read that the scenery played an effective backdrop to this novel. Another one for me to be aware of!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t been to that part of France, but I would like to after reading this book. Mary Stewart’s novels always have wonderful settings – there are a few others set in France, as well as Corfu, Crete, Austria and Lebanon!

  3. Café Society says:

    I only know the Merlin novels and it’s years since I read those. I’m not sure this is for me, but I can see myself deciding to go back to The Crystal Cave to see if I love it now as much as I did when I was a teenager.

    • Helen says:

      I only discovered the Merlin series a few years ago…my introduction to Mary Stewart was through her suspense novels. I loved The Crystal Cave, so I hope you still enjoy it if you do decide to revisit it.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    As you know, I have read all of those early novels. I started with Thunder on the Right and just kept moving along. I like your review and agree with it. A while back I did a bit of biographical study on Mary Stewart. She was quite a woman and contributed a lot to the romantic suspense genre. I love how her heroines are usually the smartest character in the story!

    • Helen says:

      I’ve been reading them all out of order…it would have been interesting to have started with the earlier ones to see how her writing evolved over time. I usually love Mary Stewart’s heroines but I thought the heroine in this book (Jennifer) wasn’t as strong as most of her others.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I am pleased you’ve enjoyed your foray back into Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, even if Thunder on the Right is perhaps not her best. I really must get back to them myself – I have a few lined up, including, I am pretty sure, This Rough Magic! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I thought this one was a bit weaker than most of her others, but I still enjoyed it. This Rough Magic is great and it has a beautiful setting – I’m sure you’ll like it. 🙂

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