I was surprised by how many people were interested in my review of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, so I decided to post a review of another Stewart novel, one of my favorites of her later romantic suspense novels, about family secrets, published in 1976. Touch Not the Cat is the only Stewart book, aside from her Merlin novels, that includes a touch of the supernatural.
Bryony Ashley is awakened on Madeira, where she works, by a message from her father. She has always had a telepathic link with one of her cousins—she doesn’t know which one—but he unexpectedly relays a garbled message from her father. So, she is not altogether surprised when she learns that her father has been severely injured after a hit and run accident. Before she can go to him, he dies, leaving behind a warning of danger. She returns to England to settle his estate.
Bryony’s family owns Ashley Court, an ancient stately home that the family has not been able to afford for some time. It is entailed to her cousin Howard and after him to his sons, her identical twin cousins Emory and James. Bryony has always assumed that her “lover,” as she calls her telepathic friend, is one of these two cousins, since telepathy is said to run in her family and she was never very close to her third cousin, Francis.
The only part of the estate that passes to Bryony is the small cottage where she lives on a patch of land surrounded by a system of canals. The rest of Ashley Court is currently being rented by a rich American family, the Underhills.
Almost as soon as Bryony gets home, odd things begin happening. Someone steals an old book of records from the church. She goes on the tour of Ashley Court and notices that small, valuable objects of art are missing, including some of her own possessions. Then Emory and James arrive on the scene and immediately begin pressuring her to wind up the estate affairs and sell her own property to them.
As she pokes around in the library, Bryony figures out that her father was worried about something he discovered about the ancient property and is reluctant to sell it until she determines just what his discovery was. Calmly helping around the estate is her childhood friend, Rob Granger. It was to Mrs. Granger and her son that Bryony always turned in times of trouble as a child, so she confides some of her concerns to him.
Interspersed with Bryony’s story are a few paragraphs in each chapter from the point of view of an ancestor, the black sheep of the family, Nick Ashley. It was Nick’s father who selected the puzzling family motto “Touch not the cat, but [without] a glove” (an actual motto of the Clan MacPherson). Eventually, the two stories converge to reveal the secrets of the house and the reason for Bryony’s father’s death.
From a more innocent time, Mary Stewart’s novels are among those I turn to periodically for a bit of light reading, and I find them unfailingly entertaining. As usual with Stewart, her heroine is appealing and she slowly builds a feeling of suspense. Her plotting in this novel is complicated and the mystery engrossing. Although we are accustomed these days to narratives that move back and forth between two periods of time, this was a more unusual technique for the 1970’s.