Is Touch Not the Cat only the fourth Mary Stewart novel that I've read? I somehow feel she and I, rather her stories and I, are long standing friends. Isn't it funny how easy it is to fall in with certain authors? You can pick up their books and settle into them knowing you're in good hands. I've got a string of authors who have become dependable reads and I think I can safely add Mary Stewart to that list. Happily she has written more than a dozen books of what I suppose you might classify as romantic suspense, though don't be put off by that label if you're not a romance reader. Her stories have plenty of suspense/adventure and Touch Not the Cat almost feels like a mystery novel though typically her books seem to have a romantic thread running through them. All in all they're very satisfying and perfect turn-to books when in need for a little light escapism.
The last two Mary Stewart novels I've read have had exotic settings, but most of the story this time around takes place in England. It's a little bit unusual, too, in that the main character has a 'second sight' or what might be called ESP. Bryony Ashley is working on the island of Madeira when she has an overwhelming sense that something has happened to her father. He's recuperating from an illness in Germany when she wakens one night hearing a voice in her head. Bryony's ESP comes in the form of an intimate communication with someone she believes is an Ashley cousin. "My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him" begins the story.
"It comes through neither in words nor in pictures, but--I can't put it any better--in sudden blocks of intelligence that are thrust into one's mind and slotted and locked there, the way a printer locks the lines into place, and there is the page with all its meanings for you to read. With these thought-patterns the whole page comes through at once; I suppose it may be like block-reading, though I have never tried that."
It's a sort of private conversation Bryony has with this unknown man. Exactly who he is she's unsure, but it's someone she's known from childhood on. The conversations and familiarity are completely natural to her, so much so she has never really questioned it, though growing up she did try and learn about it, seeing it more as a gift than a burden.
By the time she arrives in Bad Tölz it's too late. Her father is dead. He had been walking to the city center when he was struck by a motorist who didn't stop to aid him. He left behind for Bryony a garbled and mysterious message that neither she nor the family lawyer can decipher. And now she must return to England with her father's ashes to begin tying up loose ends at Ashley Court. A grand manor house complete with a moat, Ashley Court no longer belongs to Bryony. The house and grounds are entailed and so go to her father's nearest male relative. Most likely it'll go to her own cousins since their father resides abroad. She hopes to finally discover just which of these cousins is her secret confidante.
Ashley Court has a unique feature--there is a maze behind the house and in the center sits a pavilion that was once the trysting spot for a long-ago Ashley relative. Now the house draws every fund available for its upkeep and it's likely to be more of a hardship on her cousins than a gift. A wealthy American family rents a part of the house and the rest is open to the public for tours. Bryony discovers that a number of expensive family heirlooms have gone missing which adds to the mystery of her father's last message to her.
Each chapter ends with a teaser--a scene from her roguish Ashley forebear and his lady love in the mid-1800s which holds a key to the mystery of Ashley Court and Byrony's "sight". I wasn't sure how Stewart would handle this aspect of the novel. I often have problems with time slip stories (Susanna Kearsley being a notable exception) or stories that deal with (for lack of a better word) the supernatural (okay, so ghost stories excepted, too), but I very much enjoyed this one. Aside from the slightly jarring use of the word Lover in Bryony's mental communications, I was an enthusiastic reader as the story was unraveling. Timing plus just the right balance between intrigue and romance made it hard for me to put down, and it's always nice to have a few of these on hand. It has lots of suspense, a few twists and a nice bit of romance as well.
This was Cornflower's last book group choice, so a nod in her direction and thanks for the gentle push to pick up a new Mary Stewart novel sooner rather than later. Reactions were a bit mixed among her readers, and certainly it does occasionally show it's age (it's a later book published in 1976), but most readers seem to be in agreement that generally speaking Mary Stewart is much loved and there are many favorites amongst her other novels. I've been collecting her books so am already looking forward to the next. If you read Mary Stewart, which book do you call favorite?