RogerBW's Blog

Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart 10 February 2019

1976 thriller or romantic suspense. After the death of her father, Bryony Ashley returns to Ashley Court; the place is going to ruin for lack of income, and it won't be hers anyway, but there's still business to take care of. But her father tried to leave her a warning…

Stewart's thrillers had until this been set strictly in the knowable world, but after some time away from them writing Arthuriana she evidently felt she had some licence to expand that slightly; Bryony is telepathic, and since childhood has been in frequent contact with a specific person, whom she regards as her lover – but she doesn't know who he is, just that since it's a family gift he must be one of her three cousins. This ends up being rather fiddly, because unlike fast cars, automatic pistols, or other things with which the typical reader of romantic suspense books might not be entirely familiar, there's no right answer to the question of just what it can do. There's a narrated section in which Bryony tries to lay out the ground rules, but I still felt that the telepathic link was too fuzzily defined and prone to doing things convenient for the plot (particularly regarding the question of how effectively one can lie or conceal things over it).

Similarly vague, alas, is the layout of Ashley Court, and particularly its various watercourses; the climax involves the possibility of a flood, but I at least never felt I had a good enough picture of what was where to feel any concern or think of remediations beyond what was immediately described.

It's odd, because the details of the orchard over which Bryony's cottage has a view, and various other bits of landscape, are done very well; they just don't fit together, somehow.

It's less reasonable to criticise Bryony for being slow to regard the two of her cousins present on the scene as less than perfect: she grew up with them and she knows one of them is her telepathic soulmate, so while we as readers can instantly spot that they're at least somewhat bad 'uns it's fair that she should take a little longer over it. On the other hand, the ally she picks up might reasonably do a better job of saying to her "if you take these basic precautions against them and they find out they will indeed be offended, but if they aren't the enemy, they'll never know about it, so what's the harm?".

I felt this wasn't quite up with Stewart's best work. There are some very good bits dealing with the analysis of bad poetry; but the telepathic mystery feels like distraction from the obvious villainy. There's what seems like an appropriate death scene for the villains, only to have it un-done with an off-stage escape; Stewart hadn't previously been shy of killing off bad people, even if she generally arranged for it to be in some way their own fault. And Bryony doesn't, in the end, actually do very much. It's still good, but if this were the first Stewart I'd read I wouldn't feel any great urge to find any more.

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