Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart
I am notoriously rubbish at keeping up with reading challenges, and have virtually given up committing to anything that requires a schedule as I always fail. However, delightfully enough, Mary Stewart Reading Week drifted back into my line of vision just before it started and when I was in a position to pick up any book I fancied – so a Mary Stewart it was, and I’ve at last taken part successfully in a reading challenge! Fingers crossed for Margaret Kennedy later in the year!
I chose “Wildfire at Midnight” for no particular reason other than I had it on my shelf and it kind of fitted in with the Scottish mood I’m in at the moment, being set on the Isle of Skye. It’s Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956, and is narrated by Gianetta Brooke, a young divorcee from a sheltered upbringing who now makes a living as a model in London. Feeling somewhat burnt out after a painful divorce from her author husband, Nicholas Drury, she sets off for a break on Skye, to literally get away from it all. On the boat crossing, she meets an intriguing gent by the name of Roderick Grant, a lover of mountains and climbing, who tells her about the peaks. However, both he and the ferryman are reluctant to discuss one mountain, Blaven, and there is a similar reticence at the hotel.
Needless to say, there are a very mixed bunch staying on Skye, including Grant; Mr. and Mrs. Corrigan, there for the fishing; Marcia Maling, a London actress; Alastair Braine, an acquaintance of Gianetta who’s in advertising; Ronald Beagle, a famous climber; Marion and Roberta, a pair of teachers; and last, but certainly not least, Gianetta’s ex-husband. So it’s kind of the country house setting of a classic murder mystery, but transplanted to a hotel on Skye, and there certainly has been murder done – and more follows.
The murder has taken place on Blaven, and the victim was a local girl, killed in an almost sacrificial manner. The local inspector is flummoxed, and the hotel is full of tension, as the murdered girl was rumoured to have been spending time with a ‘gentleman from London’ – so obviously all the men in the hotel are under suspicion. What follows involves fishing, mountain climbing, scary dark hotels at night, murder, threat, confusion and plenty of drama! Needless to say, there is a satisfying resolution and all loose ends are neatly tied up.
Mary Stewart’s novels, including this one, are described as ‘gothic romances’ which frankly is a little odd for this book. It’s actually a slightly spooky murder mystery with plenty of romance chucked in, but there’s nothing gothic about it! What sets Stewart apart from run-of-the-mill romance writing is the quality of her prose; she’s an excellent writer, and her descriptions of the Skye landscape and mountains are atmospheric; and she creates a wonderful tension at several points in the story when Gianetta or other characters are being menaced. Gianetta herself is a pleasing mixture of feisty and vulnerable, and you’re with her all the way, whether she’s scrambling up mountains or creeping round darkened hotel corridors or lost in mist and bogs. I confess I guessed the murderer quite early on, but that was no great problem as the fun was watching the story play out and see how Stewart would resolve it.
“Wildfire at Midnight” was the first Stewart I’ve read since my teens and I really enjoyed it. We’re not talking great literature here, but an enjoyable, compelling, unputdownable murder/romance; one of those lovely comfort reading books that keep you up all night and are pure, self-indulgent pleasure. Many thanks to Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights for hosting the Mary Stewart Reading Week – I had a ball with this one! :)