Mystery in the Pyrenees Mountains

The Pyrenees Mountains are impressive enough with any need to make them even more mysterious than they already are. But trust Mary Stewart to manage just that. If you know the mountains, you will know she has been there. As with all her mystery novels, this one is as much travel guide as it is mystery story. It is bound up in the local history of this wild region marking the border between France and Spain.

Mary Stewart sends her heroine into the backwaters of the French Pyrenees where she wants to meet up with her cousin. Once there, she is told that her cousin died after a car accident, but the details of the story seem not to add up. Research brings the heroine to uncover another mystery. The questions to the mysteries are fairly quickly and easily solved but the situation isn't. The heroine has an aptitude to entangle herself in one scrap after another which keeps the story going to the last page.

The rugged landscape is the chosen setting for this story. It is nothing short of spectacular and ideal to make everything very complicated. Take a lonely village with an even lonelier nunnery at the back of its valley as the principal hunting ground for the heroine. Add lonely and inaccessible farmsteads scattered over the mountainside to the complications that keep everyone out in the weather. And the description of that weather is masterly and very apt.

The singular weather patterns of the region build the backdrop to the story. Mary Stewart’s mastery in conveying sound and smells brings the reader directly into those stark mountains, its storms, and its unique population. She debunks ideas that these mountaineers are either French or Spanish. They are in fact a breed all to themselves. And their moralities and loyalties are as far removed from Paris or Madrid as the valleys they live in.

Part and parcel of book and story is the history of the region during World War II and in fact up to the end of the regime of General Franco, even though it was written before that end finally came. That history is not a pretty one and nothing to be proud of. But it is part of what these mountains stand for. Smuggling always was part of the lives of mountaineers, and this meant not only the smuggling of goods.

If you never thought of going for a holiday in that direction, this book might be the one thing that will get you there. There are many of these remote places still preserved in that Pyrenees, if you prefer solitude to the trampled paths of guided tours. The area offers recreation for hikers as well as climbers, but asking the locals for weather advice is being on the right side of caution before setting out.

The book was published in 1957 and has been out of print for a number of years. Now it is available on Kindle.