The Supple Suitor
The Maze Stone
By Eileen Dunlop
Eileen Dunlop’s 1982 The Maze Stone is a standalone juvenile fantasy.
Fanny Mowbray’s reunion with her birth father Dr. Mowbray might have been cause for celebration, if the reason for the reunion had not been the sudden death of Fanny’s grandmother (the woman who had raised her). Fanny is too grief-stricken to have any energy, or will, to revive her ties with her father or build new ones with her stepmother Mrs. Mowbray or her stepsister Hester.
An old mystery will bring the two teens together.
Seventy years earlier, William Maitland had entered Birkenshaw House and was never seen again. The police were able to establish that the house was locked from the inside and that there was no obvious way out of the locked building. Nevertheless, Maitland had somehow vanished.
Decades passed. Birkenshaw was torn down and an upscale suburb was built in its place. Doctor Mowbray purchased one of those houses for his new family. The purchase seemed a wise investment. Now, industrialists want to open a quarry on Bieldlaw Hill, a stone’s throw from Mowbray’s home. The local economy is depressed, and the promise of new industry (and new jobs) convinces most citizens to favour the development. The handful of well-to-do suburban homeowners don’t have enough clout to stop it.
Meanwhile, the new stepsister is nursing ambitions to become an actor. The Mowbrays are less than encouraging, but Hester has hopes of changing their minds. Her school has hired a new teacher, Nimmo Lessing, who is a former West End actor. Hester hopes to enlist him on her side.
Her innocent plot takes an unexpected turn when it becomes clear that Nimmo has an entirely unteacherly but very flattering interest in Hester. Hester is too infatuated to ask the questions she should. It falls to her stepsister Fanny and her talent for snooping. There seems to be some connection between Nimmo and the seven-decade-old mystery of Birkenshaw House. If Fanny can rouse herself from her grief, she might be able to get the goods on Nimmo and save Hester from her uncanny lothario.
1982 is only … huh, actually it’s thirty-five years ago. How did that happen?
Anyway, because 1982, Fanny must investigate Nimmo by writing away for info. She cannot just google him. What would take a modern teen a few minutes takes her as long as it takes paper correspondence to arrive and further queries to be sent. But of course this is a book, and months can develop over a few pages. Which do not take that long to read. So, antique tech had surprisingly little effect on the plot or the tempo of the narrative.
What a welcome change of pace it was to read a spec-fic novel in which an older man’s wooing of a teenager in his care is painted as creepy and wrong. We eventually learn that it isn’t Hester in particular he wants, but just a convenient victim, one he must seduce before a certain deadline. Which deadline has been imposed by an eldritch menace and also by local politics: Margaret Thatcher and her economic policies (this is set in 1980s UK). Nota bene: don’t vote Conservative if you are not willing to sacrifice your kids to creepy teachers and eldritch menaces.
Although it is not entirely clear to me why Fanny was left in care of her granny after her mother died, and why Dr. Mowbray did not reclaim her when he remarried1, the devastating loss of her grandmother shapes the novel. Fanny was too focused on her own grief to notice Hester’s attempts at befriending her, which left Hester without anyone to warn her that she was making some very bad decisions2.
Eileen Dunlop is a new author to me (perhaps because I aged out of her target market before she stated publishing). This book seems to have fallen out of print soon after it was published. IMHO, the obscurity is undeserved, because this short, efficient novel rewards reading. Not great lit, but a pleasant pastime. Perhaps a publisher could consider bringing her books back into print. As ebooks?
The Maze Stone is available here (Amazon) and via your favourite purveyors of used books.
1: Given that he had apparently abandoned his daughter, it’s not surprising that Mowbray’s preferred solution to the quarry problem is flight. Find a nice job in another town, sell his house, and leave his neighbours to fend for themselves as best they can.
2: To their credit, once Doctor and Mrs. Mowbray notice Hester’s infatuation with Nimmo, they do try to dissuade her. This is exactly as successful as one would expect.