RogerBW's Blog

Wildfire at Midnight, Mary Stewart 14 February 2015

1956; mystery/thriller or romantic suspense. In 1953, the fashion model Gianetta Drury has over-worked herself, and leaves London just before the Coronation to spend some time in a remote hotel on Skye. But it's not the peaceful retreat she'd hoped for.

For a start, her ex-husband (they divorced some four years earlier) is there. So is the glamorous film star Marcia Maling, which may help solve that problem. But it soon turns out that a local girl has been killed on the mountain, in an oddly ritualistic way, and it seems all too likely that the murderer is one of Gianetta's fellow guests…

So it's a closed-hotel detective story: the place is accessible only by boat or private car, the generator and hence the electric lights are turned off at midnight, and everyone's a potential suspect except when they've already been bumped off. In fact that's the main difficulty with the book: this is in theory a novel of romantic suspense, but because whoever will turn out to be Gianetta's true love must (as one of the guests) be under suspicion, most of the romance part has to be squeezed into the final chapters after the murderer has been identified and dealt with. Stewart does try to drop a hint here and there, but it's always blunted by the need to be even-handed. In turn this means that the background of Gianetta's failed marriage, while handed to us in an info-dump at the start of the book, isn't really used as effectively as it might be.

On the other hand the mystery itself is well-handled, with more killings and a gradual accrual of clues, though perhaps the red herrings are a bit obvious, and "a lunatic did it" is never quite as satisfying as when one has rational motives to untangle. This isn't one of those dense-packed stories where every word has to be weighed, though if you were skim-reading you might well miss one important hint. And there is some truly lovely writing, always Stewart's forté:

The place where Dougal Macrae had seen the climbers was about halfway along Blaven's western face. There the crest of the mountain stands up above the scree in an enormous hog's-back of serrated peaks, two thousand feet and more of grim and naked rock, shouldering up the scudding sky. I stopped and looked up. Streams of windtorn mist raced and broke round the buttresses of the dreadful rock; against its sheer precipices the driven clouds wrecked themselves in swirls of smoke; and, black and terrible, above the movement of the storm, behind the racing riot of grey cloud, loomed and vanished and loomed again the great devil's pinnacles that broke the sky and split the winds into streaming rack. Blaven flew its storms like a banner.

There are some rough spots, such as where Gianetta seems to be advising a much older woman completely to overlook her husband's affaire in order to keep him. I also found Gianetta a little weak at times, after the splendid example Stewart set in Madam, Will You Talk?; she's a bit too inclined to feel weak and even faint, and at one point fails to resort to violence even to defend her own life. Fair enough, she's allowed to make mistakes, but I do have a preference for heroines who rescue themselves rather than ones who need to be got out of their troubles by someone else. On the other hand, a sequence with Gianetta in a hotel bedroom while the murderer tries to talk his way inside is all one might wish for, and she's usually an entertaining narrator.

It's perhaps a step down from her first novel, but I still found it solidly entertaining, and indeed very much the sort of thing I'd like to write myself.

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