Books with a certain patina aren’t always the worst ones to read. If you are going on a holiday to Austria (or if you never considered doing that), Airs Above The Ground by Mary Stewart should be part of the reading stuff to take along. Consider it a guidebook extraordinary when you do so.
Mary Stewart starts her mystery off with the husband in Stockholm appearing on a newsreel featuring a circus in Austria. That sets the heroine on her path to Vienna and into Styria where the circus is touring. From there onwards, she leads the heroine, and with her the reader, a merry dance of mysteries all surrounding that circus and one of its horses.
The airs above the ground (Schulen über der Erde) mentioned in the book’s title give the indication that she is dealing with the Spanish Riding School. The specially trained stallions from the Imperial Piber Stud are trained in the high school (Hohe Schule) of dressage riding. They execute the extraordinary manoeuvres called the Levade, the Courbette, and the Capriole. If you’ve never seen it, then it’s time to book your tickets for Vienna.
As one mystery after another starts to unravel, the solving of one puzzle just brings that many more questions to the fore. The pace she sets is fast, the story amusing, and the plot believable. Her teasing way of liberally providing clues, obvious ones and hidden ones, makes one believe more than once to have solved the mystery before she wants to reveal it. If that isn’t good enough for you, there is more to the book than that.
Mary Stewart has an extraordinary knack to convey the smells, the landscape, the colours, the sounds, and the feeling of Austria to the reader. Her descriptions are so much part of the story and the plots that they are never boring or irrelevant. And I noticed that she had been there, seen it, and wrote the book. As her descriptions are vivid, driving through Styria will be a permanent reminder of incidents described in the book. As she deals in real places, you might find it amusing and rewarding to follow her heroine’s steps through the beautiful landscape in Styria and towards the Semmering pass.
She also manages to pack some of the long history of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Imperial Stud at Piber into the story. While being entertained, the reader is educated at the same time. As she took pains to work with the then director of the Spanish Riding School, her rendition of that history is correct and detailed to a fault (but not boring, I believe, even for a non-horsey person). Reading the book is an excellent way of making the first steps in getting to know Austria and will give appetite for more.
The book was published in 1965 and has been out of print for a number of years. Now it is available on Kindle.