Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

Vanessa March and her husband, Lewis, were about to go on a European holiday together. They had been married two years and Lewis’ work abroad had taken up so much of that time that he’d planned to transfer to another branch, but before he could do that he was asked to go to Sweden for one more assignment. When he told Vanessa that their holiday would have to be postponed for a week or two, she was furious. They argued and Vanessa said some things she later regretted.
Just after this she was asked by Carmel, an opportunistic old school friend of her mother’s, to accompany her 17 year old son, Tim, to Austria, and deliver him to his father whom he hadn’t seen since his parent’s divorce. At first she refused but when Carmel mentioned that she’d seen a newsreel of a fire at a circus in Austria and that Lewis had been in the footage in the company of a young woman, she was shocked.
Why was Lewis in Austria when he was supposed to be working in Stockholm? Who was this woman who had been with him?
A sensation that her husband was in danger began to take the place of her anger and she decided that she would, after all, accompany Tim to Austria.
Although there were some far fetched aspects to this story, it was very enjoyable. This is the fifth Mary Stewart novel I’ve read to date and they have all had some similarities, which certainly didn’t diminish the pleasure of reading them. They have all had a female as the main protagonist who narrates the story, but this book was a little different in that three characters – Vanessa, Lewis and Tim, are main players each in their own way. There were some humorous moments between husband and wife and the relationship that developed between Vanessa and Tim was lovely, especially as neither of them was enamoured with the others’ company when they first started their journey.

I’m not that interested in horses and the Lippizan stallions are a feature in this story. Fortunately, Mary Stewart has such a facility for evoking beauty in her descriptions, I didn’t mind reading about them at all.

‘Seeing one of the famous Lipizzans now for the first time at close quarters, I was surprised to realise how small he was; fourteen hands, I supposed, give or take an inch, stockily built with well-set-on shoulders and sturdy legs and feet, big barrelled, big chested, with the thick stallion neck and the power in the haunches that was needed for the spectacular leaps to which these animals could be trained.’

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the only institution in the world where the classic equestrian skills (haute école) has been preserved and is still practiced in its original form, and it turned out that Tim was obsessed with the Lippizan stallions and was a veritable storehouse of knowledge. The murder mystery is set within a circus which is touring Austria and Vanessa just happened to be a vet! The title, “airs above the ground,” refers to a series of higher-level classical dressage movements where the horse leaves the ground.

As with her other books, there are numerous references to the classics and literature in general.

‘High up in a turret a solitary lighted window made one think of fairy tales again; Curdie’s grandmother might sit spinning there, or Rapunzel of the long hair, or Elsa watching for the seven swans.’

Airs Above the Ground was a very enjoyable book. It builds slowly and then becomes a headlong rush with some highly improbable rooftop chases and a dramatic rescue on a train line.
As with her other books that I’ve read, the baddies are really bad, and Lewis metes out his own bit of justice on one of them for laying hands on Vanessa. Earlier on, while she was still angry with her husband, she had said that he was ‘selfish, obstinate, and arrogant, and has no feelings of any kind whatsoever.
He did come across as a cool sort of character at first but his actions later on revealed another aspect of his nature.

‘Lewis’, I said accusingly, ‘can you possibly be ‘wanting’ some rough stuff?’
‘Good heavens, no!’ He said it very lightly, and it was a lie – a lie he didn’t even trouble to follow up, but gave it away with the next sentence, ‘Is your face still sore?’

I’m definitely a Mary Stewart fan though I can’t believe it’s taken me up until this year to find out she existed! I’m impatient to read more of her writing.

8 thoughts on “Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

  1. You’re definitely making me want to go back & (re)read Mary Stewart, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually read this one when I was reading them.

    I saw the Lippizaners once (in Vienna!). I’m not much of a horse person either, but they were pretty cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Reading in 2022 | journey & destination

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