Three books by two favourites: Mary Stewart's Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold and Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca.
Touch Not has the hallmarks of one of Stewart’s classic romantic suspense novels: a beautiful woman (Bryony Ashley), both supremely confident and utterly alone in the world; a breath-taking location (the collapsing, but beautiful, ruin of Ashley Court); a discreet problem (the Court, and its expensive upkeep - whatever is one to do with this most ridiculous of #firstworldproblems). There are even several handsome men, depicting a variety of swoony characteristics, for Bryony to inevitably choose from. And, naturally some skullduggery: perhaps Ashley’s father’s accidental death wasn’t quite so accidental after all.
In the normal Stewart formula, this would unfold in the traditional way, with a few twists, an inevitable romantic pairing, and the barest modicum of actual threat. Stewart’s novels often unfold with an aristocratic coziness that precludes actual danger: the characters are so warmly ensconced in an upper crust so thick that murder itself couldn't penetrate it. (It is, I daresay, utterly wonderful to read, and her characters' self-confidence makes them better escapism than a thousand-thousand hobbits.)
Touch Not, however, comes with a twist. Which is, er, telepathy. Not of the subtle “a premonition!” sort either. Bryony, for reasons left largely unexplained, has a long-standing telepathic connection with some dude: probably in/around/of the Ashley family. This has become an astral betrothedness: Bryony knows she’ll eventually be with this guy, and vice versa. She just needs to figure out who he is first... (He’s very coy.)
On one hand, this adds another level of mystery. And the whoizzit is much more tense than the whodunnit, as Stewart offers a host of possibilities, including multiple cousins (including a pair of twin, for extra confusion) and a secondary perspective that seems to be (but probably isn’t) a ghost. It is the most confusing will-they/won’t-they (or have-they/are-they) predestination love pentagram you may ever encounter.
On the other hand, what the actual hell. Besides a clear sense of differentiation (Touch Not the Cat = the telepathy one), I’m not sure what it actually adds. Telepathy means that: the romance, once begun, is whole-hearted and unquestioned (which doesn’t differ from any other Stewart); there’s a cross-continental plot hook that draws Bryony into the initial mess (which doesn’t differ from any other Stewart, in which she uses ‘a letter’); it leads to a lot of romantic confusion, as she tries to figure out if That Guy is The Guy (which, again, is the same as any other). Which is to say, as a plot device, telepathy adds nothing - except for raising a lot of (unanswered) questions.
Touch is, of course, totally charming, and, like all other Stewarts, completely worth the time and effort of tracking down. Bryony is confident, thoughtful, self-assured and good fun - and, despite the odd way in which they get from A to Z, the eventual couple is a good one (well done, cosmic forces!). But this will, for better or for worse, be ‘the telepathy one’: an awkward fusion of two genres for an author who is, otherwise, an expert in both.
Stewart’s other fusion is, in my eyes, much more successful - possibly because it takes a tack into the domestic. Unlikes Stewart’s other novels, there’s very little of the ‘suspense’ in Thornyhold. Instead, it is the story of a young woman growing up and finding her place in the world: a home, a community, a friendship, a family, and, of course, a loving partner.
Gilly grows up lonely: the daughter of modest country vicar and the strong-willed woman who sacrificed her own ambitions to marry him. As they move around from farming villages to mining towns, Gilly is increasingly isolated - and her parents, although loving, are too wrapped up in their own lives. Boarding school goes badly: she’s too much of an loner. Pets don’t last. And friends are nowhere on the horizon. Her only real connection is with her aunt Geillis, her godmother, who is - if not fairy, at least something quite fey. Geillis appears and disappears at random, showering Gilly with odd bits of knowledge and an appreciation of the natural world. If Geillis sometimes knows a bit too much, Gilly lets it go unchallenged: she’s simply happy to have a friend.
Gilly grows up and finds herself alone in the world. When her enigmatic aunt passes away and leaves her everything, Gilly leaps at the chance for a new start - packing up and moving to the remote cottage of Thornyhold. There she finds further evidence of Geillis’ strange life: animals, potions, mysterious journals... plus dark dreams, odd omens, creepy neighbours... One might think there’s something witchy going on.
Despite the occasional dive into the occult, there’s absolutely nothing threatening - or the least bit scary - about Gilly’s discoveries. The competition (such as it is), between witches (such as they are), is never anything sinister - and, in the great tradition of Britishness, even when it is at its most heated, everyone still happily drinks tea and swaps jam recipes. Arguably, this is a book without conflict: Gilly is welcomed to Thornyhold - by its civilised and natural residents - from the moment she arrives. Thornyhold is, instead, a pleasant chronicle of watching a woman slowly, tentatively fit in. A type of kitchen sink fiction that comes complete with pigeons and the occasional witch.
If it sounds slow... it is. But Thornyhold is never boring and its warmth conceals a depth of emotions. Gilly’s childhood is miserable, and you’ll share her agony at a lost dog - and her heart-bursting joy when, as an adult, she finds another. Stewart’s nature writing is always sublime, and Thornyhold is - cover to cover - an excess of burgeoning serenity. Stewart's later works are undeniably kitchen sink fiction, but in the cosiest of kitchens.
Unlike Touch Not the Cat, where the fantastic element serves as an over-complicated proxy for standard plot elements, Thornyhold’s brush with the supernatural acts as a powerful metaphor. Gilly’s dreams - and the occult schemes - serve to enhance the metaphor of belonging: a call to duty, a connection with nature and family,, and the powerful lure that is belonging.
For all the Heyer I’ve read, this was my first of her mysteries. I was delighted to find that, like her regency romances, Envious Casca (later retitled A Christmas Party) is smart, quick, and very, very funny.
The first half is probably the best. The story slow-burns to the eventual (but inevitable) murder and its immediate repercussions, but it is less of a tense thriller than a snarky character drama. The setting is a remote country house during Christmas. The cast: a group of family and friends, all of whom really dislike one another, and especially dislike their ostensible host, the Scroogey family patriarch. The balance between British Courtesy and Visceral Distaste makes for a lot of humorous moments - with the highlight being an excruciatingly funny reading of a terrible modernist play.
When the murder happens (and it does), the cast is joined by Heyer’s phlegmatic Inspector Hemingway. Hemingway, unlike Poirot or his other equivalents, never steals the spotlight. Although a point of view character, he’s one of many, and seemingly happy to lurk about in the background. The individual character dramas continue to play out, and, in many ways, their personal conflicts are given more priority than the murder itself.
The result is an quirky, joyously off-kilter mystery, where there’s a lot of fun and fuss, but very little fretting. (It also, happily, follows the rules, which is always more satisfying.) Highly recommended, and a relief to know that Heyer's mysteries are as entertaining and as personable as her romances.