Crime Fiction Alphabet: I is for Ivy

“I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over the south seemed to hang without movement. Against their curded bases the fells curved and folded, blue foothills of the Pennines giving way to the misty green of pasture, where, small in the distance as hedge-parsley, trees showed in the folded valleys, symbols, perhaps, of houses and farms. But in all that windless, wide landscape, I could see no sign of man’s hand, except the lines – as old as the ridge-and-furrow of the pasture below me – as the dry stone walls, and the arrogant stride of the great wall which Hadrian had driven across Northumberland, nearly two thousand years ago.”


Mary Grey had only arrived in England, from Canada, a few days ago but she already felt at home, she was already a little in love with the English countryside.

But she found out that she wasn’t alone. A man approached her, convinced that she was his cousin Annabel, who had disappeared nine years ago. She assured him that she wasn’t. That he was mistaken.

The man was Connor Winslow, Con, and he was the manager of his great-uncle’s estate, Whitescar. He looked after the land and his half-sister, Lisa managed the house.  And Con had an extraordinary idea: Mary should impersonate Annabel.

Matthew Winslow was dying, and he refused to believe that his grand-daughter was dead. Annabel was still named as the heir to his estate and his fortune in his will. Con wanted Mary to pose as Annabel, to claim her inheritance. She would be paid a substantial amount of money from the estate and he would save the family home he loved.

The idea seemed ludicrous. And yet …

Mary went to Whitescar. But she soon that realised, for all that Con and Lisa had told her, there were things she didn’t know. Things they had chosen not to tell her. And things that they didn’t know.

Who was Annabel? Who was Mary?

Mary Stewart wraps up a mystery and an emotional family drama with some lovely gothic touches

Yes, the plot does sound unbelievable, but she makes it work.

She attends to the practical details. Only a few people need be deceived for a very short time, and Annabel has been away for a long time. You can change a great detail, forget a certain amount, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight, and Mary’s own life history can be used to account for Annabel’s ‘lost years’.

And she writes it beautifully. Descriptions of the house and the country are beautifully and naturally written, the characters and their conversations are utterly real, the motions rang true, and I found it very easy to be drawn in.

There were so many gentle plot twists, so many emotional changes, and my involvement with the story never faltered.

There were lovely details too. Annabel’s cousin, Julie, was the same age that Annabel when she disappeared.  Julie’s boyfriend, Donald, was an archaeologist involved with a project at a Roman fort in the area. And the plotters themselves note the similarity of their plan to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar …

The romance that I expected in a Mary Stewart novel arrived a little late, and the grand finale was everything a finale should be.

Having Mary tell the story was a wise decision. I questioned her reliability, and I wondered what she might be holding back, but now that her story is done I can’t fault her narration. I understand the reasons for everything she said and did; and for everything that she didn’t say and didn’t do. 

I wonder if it’s significant that the author gave her leading lady her own name … ?

I had an idea how the plot would be resolved, and I got a lot of it but not everything.

A couple of small niggles: a few women characters a little too accepting of their situations, a few male characters a little undeveloped, and the unbelievability of the deception at the centre of the plot.

That leaves me incline to say that this is a book to read when you want to be entertained, but not when you want to be too analytical.

But, having said that, I can’t fault the logic. Now I look back I can see that there were clues. And I think that if I went back to the beginning and read The Ivy Tree all over again the logic would still hold up, and I would admire the cleverness of the construction.

I probably will one day, but I have a good number of Mary Stewart’s novels still unread to attend to first.

I’ve read ‘Rose Cottage’, ‘Thunder on the Right’ and this one, and if there are any of the others that you can particularly recommend I’d love to know.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, I is for … ?

11 responses

  1. Oh, my goodness, Jane, I haven’t read a Mary Stewart in years. I am so glad you reminded me of her work. Her stories are such great family dramas, complete with inheritances, sometimes romance, crime, mystery and a lot more. I remember very much liking Touch Not the Cat. Have you read that one?

    • Mary Stewart was one of the authors my mother recommended when I first joined the adult library, but I didn’t get around to reading her books before they fell out of fashion and disappeared from the shelves. I forgot all about her until last year’s reissues, and now I have to make up for lost time. I haven’t read ‘Touch Not the Cat’ but I have a copy and will pull it out soon I’m sure.

      • I know what you mean, Jane. Authors do go in and out of fashion and sometimes it’s hard to keep them all in mind. I know I couldn’t possibly. I hope if you get the chance to read Touch Not the Cat that you like it.

  2. I fell in love with Mary Stewart in high school and still re-read her novels. It is hard to pick a favorite – perhaps madam, Will you Talk? or This Rough Magic.

    • I wish I’d read her when I was younger, because I can imagine my teenage self being utterly charmed. And I think her books would have stood up very well to rereads over the years. I have ‘This Rough Magic’, but not ‘Madam Will You Talk?’ – but I’ll pick up all of her books in time I’m sure.

  3. I read & loved her Merlin/Arthur books years ago, but I haven’t read her suspense novels yet. I did get a copy of this one, after seeing some enthusiastic reviews of it,

  4. You know I love Mary Stewart and have read 4 of her novels so far. The Ivy Tree is one I can’t wait to read, but I haven’t been able to find a good copy of it yet. It sounds just as great as the others I’ve read. I would recommend The Moonspinners – that is my favorite so far.

  5. I read and adored Mary Stewart as a teenager and last year was delighted to discover that I still adore her books almost 40 years later!
    Do read the Merlin books but also try Wildfire at Midnight which is set in Skye, The Gabriel Hounds which is set in (I think) Lebanon, Nine Coaches Waiting and Madam Will You Talk which are both set in France.

  6. I discovered Mary Stewart through Thornyhold and A Walk in Wolf Wood, two perennial favorites of mine. However, I haven’t gotten around to many of her other ones, but I’m definitely adding this one to the list. Thanks!

  7. My thoughts on this book were very much the same as yours. I’m glad you enjoyed it! As you know, I’m still very new to Mary Stewart’s books but the best one I’ve read so far is Nine Coaches Waiting.

  8. I loved Mary Stewart and still enjoy re-reading her. I don’t care for anything after Touch Not the Cat, but Airs Above the Ground contains what is probably my favourite scene in all literature. (No spoiler, but it gets to me every time.) I read This Rough Magic not long before going overseas in 1969 and had to include Corfu in the itinerary. There’s probably only one weak one in the earlier Stewarts, Thunder on the Right.. I’m so pleased to see The Ivy Tree on this list, as the end of the fad for Gothic type romances shouldn’t mean the best of them get forgotten.

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