Do you love romantic suspense? Do you ever feel nostalgic about the Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart books you read in your girlhood? Are you apt to re-read Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca once a year? If so, you will very likely enjoy Susanna Kearsley's fine new novel, The Shadowy Horses.
Reading The Shadowy Horses certainly made me remember the pleasures of that
venerable old sub-genre, romantic suspense. It sent me questing through my bookshelves for those old Holt books, and going to the library to find the few I haven't yet read. That's not to say that Susanna Kearsley writes old hat stuff – no indeed, she is such a good writer that she breathes vigorous new life into a time-honored formula.
The story's heroine is Verity Grey, an archaeologist who leaves her job at the British museum to take a position at an excavation in Scotland. Adrian, her former lover, persuades her to join the dig, though does not disclose the nature of the find; Verity, searching for some adventure, agrees, and sets off for Eyemouth, a little fishing village on the Scottish coast.
On the journey from London, Verity meets David Fortune, another archaeologist attached to the project. She is taken by the big Scotsman's handsome looks, but as he is politely distant, Verity concludes he isn't interested. When she arrives in Scotland, she discovers that her new employer is Peter Quinnell, a legendary archaeologist considered quite mad
by the archaeological establishment. Verity, however, is taken by the elderly gentleman's charm. Quinnell confides to Verity that he believes he has discovered the last campsite of the Legio IX Hispana – a famous Roman legion that was lost without a trace. Verity is dubious but intrigued. After all, to find evidence of the mysterious fate of the Ninth Legion would be, archaeologically speaking, nearly as fantastic as finding the Holy Grail.
Verity decides to accept the position, because it is a thrilling opportunity, even if risky. Everything about Scotland seems to thrill her – not excluding David Fortune, who, alas, continues to remain icily aloof. Still, Verity settles very happily into her fascinating work.
Soon, though, she begins to sense danger lurking in the mists. There appears to be a smuggling operation running from the old house, as they always do in stories of this variety. Quinnell's beautiful, self-absorbed grand-daughter Fabia seems to be carrying out secret love affairs with every man about, and clearly will come to no good end. Verity meets Robbie, a small boy who seems to have the "sight", and the uncanny ability to communicate with the ghost of a Roman sentinel. And at night, she hears galloping horses where there are no horses (referring to Yeats' shadowy horses, mythological phantoms which were portents of death). Such manifestations of the supernatural begin
to intrude on Verity's orderly, scientific view of the world, until even she begins to believe in ghosts, and fear that a malevolent force is at work, threatening them all.
Susanna Kearsley pens her tale with taut, elegant prose that is a pleasure to read. She is superb, however, at creating a unique sense of place; she strikes perfect balance between fidelity to the contemporary real world, and a brooding, mysterious atmosphere rife with the supernatural. It is this balance which gives The Shadowy Horses its updated feel, even while reminding me of the old classics of romantic suspense.
Verity is an attractive, if subdued heroine; she, like Kearsley's supporting characters, are interesting and skillfully rendered. In keeping with the romantic suspense tradition, however, The Shadowy Horses is told in the first person. Therefore, because we never experience the story from his point of view, David remains a mystery man. Too, there is very little sex in the story, and what there is, is short, non-descriptive, and G-rated. Romance fans who look for the relationship to be the foremost business of a
romance novel may be disappointed here, but the developing attraction between Verity and David is sweet and engaging, and worked for me.
So many elements in The Shadowy Horses worked so well together, that I rate
it a five heart read. However, despite my enjoyment of it, I felt the climax ought to have been a bit more dramatic. Having built such a potent sense of menace throughout, when the villain was finally unmasked, I found the ensuing showdown a wee bit flat. Seasoned mystery buffs will likely spot the culprit of the nefarious doings right off; it took me a bit longer. And as I am primarily a romance reader, rather than a mystery reader, I kept wishing that there was more interaction between Verity and David.
Still, the keen pleasure of a Susanna Kearsley novel is not so much in the mystery or the romance – but the opportunity to immerse myself in the imagination of a splendid writer. The hallmarks of her fiction are smart heroines with dream jobs, fascinating settings, and storytelling which respects the reader's intelligence rather than insults it. All of these are
excellent reasons to read The Shadowy Horses, and to look for the author's other books as well.