Book Review: My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart

The next book I read for my Readings in the Genre: Mystery Classics class for Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction was My Brother Michael (Mystery 238 pages) by Mary Stewart.

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart is by far my favorite of the novels for this class.

I found a lot of “firsts” in this book and all of them contributed to how much I enjoy and respect this novel. I was extremely excited to read a story written by a woman and the tone and setting immediately hooked me. Not only was this the first story so far this class to be written by a woman where the main character is a woman. This was also the first story we’ve read that took place in an area of the world vastly unfamiliar to the average Western reader, with multiple languages and multiple cultures. Even the setting, with the hot sun, the white canyon walls, the unsafe winding roads, and the normality of hiking through historical landmarks seems alien and distant to most readers.

This novel was also different in the sense that it didn’t start out with a body and it didn’t start out with a client. The mystery for this novel is extremely nebulous, but I would say that there are definitely multiple components and elements of mystery strewn throughout the story. This is the first story without someone who is in some way being paid to solve the mystery of someone else’s death.

The descriptions of Greece throughout this novel made me want to go there. The setting was harsh, with white canyons, rocks, and the arid, bright, burning sun. Most of the stories we’ve read so far take place in cities or in the lush green countryside. This is the first novel we’ve read for this class that used a setting unfamiliar in both country, personality, and culture. I was deeply engrossed in the setting throughout most of the book because of how descriptively Mary Stewart wrote about a culture and setting so unfamiliar to me.

There were some parts of the story were I wasn’t as engaged with the descriptions as I was with the descriptions of other parts of the story. She definitely introduced characters well, though, and all of the named characters in this story had a wonderful introduction description and also served the plot. This was one of the first stories we’ve read that wasn’t so overflowing with characters that it was easy to get them confused. Every character in this story was a person and nowhere near a cardboard cutout.

The first mystery is Camilla’s, involving the hired car and how to find the owner. The next mysteries get a little blurry after that because many things happen. Michael’s death isn’t a mystery because Stephanos tells Simon who killed Michael, where, when, and how. There isn’t even the mystery of why Michael was murdered because they are all aware of how hard World War II was on the entire area and how many things happened at that time. The mystery that continues to build throughout the story is more along the lines of what’s happening now and what or where is the treasure that Michael found so wonderful.

The middle of the book was a bit slow and uninspiring. I felt no sense of urgency for Camilla to actually find the owner of the car (and what actually happened with that anyway? Did they have to return the car and pay a huge fee for mileage and days used and such? And since they turned all of the gold and guns over to the government and didn’t get any reward, how are either of them going to pay for it?) The ticking clock wasn’t really present throughout the majority of the book, at least, not until Nigel goes missing and the attack in the art studio building. At that point, I felt as though the book really picked up and things started happening very quickly.

If the story had been told from Simon’s perspective, then we would have gotten another story similar to the ones we’d already read, with the male detective or protagonist who has little emotional capacity and is always capable of taking care of whatever comes his way. The difference between Camilla and these characters is that the reader honestly has no idea how she’s going to react to any given situation. Simon has very little outward reactions throughout the entire book and I think I would have been as emotionally disengaged and uncaring of him as I have been of all our other protagonists so far. But that’s also a really great look at the title, since it’s My Brother Michael, and it’s Simon who is actually Michael’s brother and not Camilla.

For Simon going through this novel, I could tell that he was curious about what Michael truly found that would have created such excitement in him. Surely not guns and gold would motivate Michael to speak so poetically about what he found if it were just the supplies brought in during the war. When the true mystery of what Michael, and eventually Nigel, found in that cave is revealed, it’s much more marvelous than some gold and supplies. Finding the hidden grotto with Apollo’s statue and the water was definitely an experience of awe for anyone with any sense of culture and respect, worth far more than finding gold and guns. The Apollo reveal was the highlight of the book. It was well described and pulled in the feel of the mythology combined with the setting. It made me feel as though both Simon and Michael were very shallow for being interested in some gold and guns from World War II and I was thankful that the Apollo portion was there because otherwise, I think I would have felt cheated with the book as a whole.

One of the most interesting parts about this novel to me is that it’s marked as a “Gothic Romance” by Wikipedia and as “Romantic Suspense” in other places. When I was attempting to find this book at any of the local bookstores, the clerks there told me that if they had it, it would be located in the “Historical” section. As I know this is the Mystery Classics Reading in the Genre course, I even checked under mystery. When I finally asked the owner of the used bookstore in the shady part of town if he had this book, he knew exactly what book I was looking for and told me that no one had asked about Mary Stewart or My Brother Michael in many years. He told me about how Mary Stewart also wrote fantasy and that she was writing fantasy before it became popular.

My Brother Michael had a surreal feel to it, and I suspect my feelings on that are related to the faint pan pipes Camilla hears at various points near the end of the story. The way Camilla talks about the mythology and the settings under the Greek sky gave the settings in this novel a very unique flavor and almost made me feel as though perhaps the old gods could be watching, or at least the ghosts of all those who believed so strongly that their gods were real and influenced every part of their lives. The setting was so well-written that I could almost feel the heat radiating from the white rocks throughout the entire novel.

I noticed repeated smoking of cigarettes. Smoking is used after a long hike over difficult terrain. Smoking is used after a brawl in the middle of the night with a man who is wandering around inside the place you’re staying. Smoking is used to have a discussion, or to just sit on a rock somewhere in the sun. There was a lot of smoking back in those days and it also appears to be a plot device to move the action forward. It gives the characters something to do and the readers something to read. In our modern times today, though, smoking is unhealthy and this kind of excessive smoking is not seen favorably.

I guess one of the key points for me about this novel is that I would have never seen it as a romantic anything without having been told repeatedly that I was supposed to see it as such. And even knowing that this was classified as a gothic romance and a romantic suspense novel, I still enjoyed it because I would have never seen any of that if no one had told me to look for it. And, quite frankly, I don’t read anything about the novels we read for class until after I’ve finished reading them so that my initial impressions aren’t marred by what other people tell me I’m supposed to think about things. The “romantic” elements in this novel, what few of those elements there were, were so artfully done that I didn’t even notice or care about them because they didn’t interfere with the plot or with character development and they weren’t woefully unrealistic. I think I would have been disappointed with the lack of romantic interaction if I’d been expecting romantic interaction and didn’t get it.

There was no real romantic element, which was okay for me because I wasn’t expecting one. I think it actually added some nice restraint on the parts of the characters because Camilla clearly finds Simon attractive and Simon clearly finds Camilla attractive, but they are both okay with the other person being a responsible adult and doing what’s best for their own lives. Yes, they have similar interests and they share many thought-processes and such, but they really have only known each other for a handful of days. Honestly, I think this is probably one of the most responsible relationships I’ve seen from many of the (usually completely false and unrealistic) expectations of relationships depicted in both books and movies/television. These two character don’t jump all over each other, but there is still clearly a solid connection.

I didn’t need the reminder of Philip’s missing ring tan line because at that point in the story, I didn’t really care about Philip or Camilla’s relationship to Philip. He was part of the past and he should have stayed that way. I think Camilla’s adventure would have been better served if that part hadn’t been mentioned at the end because even by mentioning him, it seems to me that she gives more value to his presence or absence in her life than she reasonably should. She’s obviously decided to start making her own decisions about her life and it seems weird and awkward to me that she had any thoughts about Philip’s ring after everything else she’d been through. I probably would have understood her thinking something about how Elizabeth would never believe the adventure she’d just been on, but we don’t really hear Camilla talking any more about her friend that was supposed to come with her.

Overall, a great novel and I’m extremely happy that I bought a hard cover book from the used bookstore with “Three novels of suspense” because I am definitely going to read more of Mary Stewart’s work.

Work Cited: Stewart, Mary. My Brother Michael. New York: M.S. Mill Company, 1960. Original Publication 1959.

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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