Wildfire at Midnight
Mary Stewart is truly one of the greats. Her books, with their practical heroines and often exotic settings, appeal to the imagination, and she has a way of building tension throughout her narratives in such a way that it reels the reader in easily. Her writing has not only inspired all manner of romantic suspense novelists, but itself stands the test of time. Thankfully, her work is being rereleased and I was thrilled to get a chance to read Wildfire at Midnight as it was one of the few books by Stewart I had never read before.
Set at a remote resort in the Hebrides, this novel features a somewhat unusual heroine for her time. Gianetta Brooke is not only a fashion model, but a divorcee, rather uncommon for a heroine in a romantic novel written in 1956. Gianetta (or Janet, as she is called by others in the book) has worked herself to exhaustion following her divorce from author Nicholas Drury, so her boss suggests she take a holiday. At her parents’ urging, she travels to an isolated resort which caters to rock climbers and fishing enthusiasts. Upon arrival, not only does Janet find the small resort rather subdued and on edge, but she discovers that her ex-husband is in residence.
Janet quickly learns the reason for the tension in the air – a young girl from the local village has been murdered in ritualistic fashion on one of the nearby mountains. Given the circumstances of the crime, it appears that the killer could only be one of the few local residents or a guest from the hotel. Not surprisingly, suspecting one of your fellow vacationers of being a crazed killer does tend to put the damper on the holiday atmosphere. Janet admires the beauty of the area, but she also gets drawn into the mystery as unsettling things happen in and around the hotel. Added into this, Janet has to socialize with Nicholas and not only is that relationship fraught with tension, but she has to wonder whether he could be the killer.
Mood is everything in this short novel, and Stewart handles the tension quite well. The whole book has an overall feel of being a cross between a gothic novel and a British house party murder mystery, and it’s a combination that works quite well. Things start off quietly enough, but the intensity of the story starts edging up, chapter by chapter, until it has reached a level of almost breathless excitement. There are some scenes related to searches for missing people through the mountains that are intensely suspenseful indeed, and I love how Stewart can place her heroine in dangerous situations without making her suddenly surrender her intelligence.
Likewise, the vivid descriptions of setting only help the story. With her mentions of heavy mists and of a large quicksand bog near the hotel, not to mention the dangerously steep peaks for climbing, one gets a sense of the splendid isolation of the resort early on and that gives a sense of urgency to the rest of the story. Even better, what starts as pastoral beauty turns forbidding in step with the developing mood of the story.
In addition to having a strong sense of place, this book is well-grounded in time as well. There are frequent mentions of celebrations related to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation that remind us that the action in this story plays out in the 1950s. While some portions of the tale feel a little dated – such as mentions of modeling being a chaperoned, sheltered profession, some of the outdated social mores and attitudes, or hikers stopping to smoke along the way – the mystery which unfolds transcends that. Janet is a practical, likable heroine who tries to do the right thing, and there is something about the nature of the crimes committed and the ultimate reasoning of the villain which comes to light that all feel compelling no matter how many years removed one is from the original publication of this book.
On the romantic front, Wildfire at Midnight is not quite so satisfying. Janet and Nicholas’ romance gets little development and given what led to the initial breakup of the marriage, I thought Janet gave Nicholas too much of a free pass. The obvious focus of this book is the mystery, and the romance definitely feels like a bit of an add-on.
Even though this isn’t Mary Stewart’s very best novel, it’s still a wonderful read. I love how she writes suspense, and this book shows why her writing stands the test of time. If you’ve never tried her work, definitely check this out along with her other books that have also been reissued recently.