Wildfire at Midnight
Needing a break from her busy London modeling career, Gianetta Drury goes to the Isle of Skye to stay at the Camas Fhionnaridh Hotel (pronounced Camasunary – I love Gaelic). At first glance, the hotel and its misty surrounds are ideally remote from London’s hullabaloo. But our heroine soon learns that her fellow travelers at the hotel are not as they seem when murder quickly follows on their footsteps.
A local girl was murdered in the hills not two weeks earlier and all the guests at the hotel except our heroine were at the hotel during that time. Then some more guests are murdered, and ooh, who could it be? Delightful shiver. Chases through bogs, tramps through the heather, fishing in a Scotch mist, and a climax at the top of dangerous Mount Blaven – this is Mary Stewart at her best.
If one reads Mary Stewart for superb settings and true suspense, then one rarely goes away unsatisfied. The Isle of Skye is brought to life in all its gloomy Gaelic glory, and its inhabitants form a wonderfully colorful cast with what I bet are proper representations of their accent. (I figure if I can’t understand half of it, then it’s proper.)
And the suspense truly is suspenseful. The usual rule of thumb – the least obvious character being the murderer – doesn’t quite apply here. There are too many plausible killers to warrant too many guesses, and what a pleasure it is just to go along for the ride.
As for Gianetta, the trick to gothic heroines is to balance innocence with intelligence and chuck them into terrifying situations without diminishing their IQ, something Ms. Stewart manages admirably. Gianetta is an appealing heroine, witty, smart, and sophisticated but not hardened by her stressful career. She has a sympathetic core of vulnerability that marches alongside intelligence and pragmatism. I liked her a lot.
But I’ve got a bone to pick with her. This is her advice to a recently cuckolded wife: “I’d put it behind you, if I were you. Can’t you pretend it never happened?” Pretend it never happened?? So much for feminism. I can make allowances since the book was written in 1956, but there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I’d ever agree with Gianetta’s swallow-your-pride-and-shut-up philosophy. Regarding her romance – well, I have to be vague but let’s just say it is emotionally gripping but ultimately unconvincing. Frankly, I’d lay equal odds to the success or failure of their marriage.
However, unless you make a point to read Mary Stewart for the romance, this is a small thing to quibble over. For suspense, mystery, atmosphere, and good old under-the-cover shivers, you can’t beat Mary Stewart, and Wildfire at Midnight is one of her best.