Characters: *** (3 stars)
Writing:***** (5 stars)
Plot: *** (3 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Oh, hello, it’s been nearly a year since I re-visited this dusty old page. I’ve moved house and made some Frighteningly Big Life Decisions in the meantime, so please forgive the lapse.
Big changes in life bring with them an urgent need for escapist literature and comfort reading, and I’ve started 2018 with a large dose of each. Just this evening I finished reading Mary Stewart’s Wildfire At Midnight. Mary Stewart wrote The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, etc: Arthurian fantasies my dad gave me to read as a pre-teen. I ate those up, so I can’t believe this book had escaped my notice until I found it just this week, in a four-volume hardcover from the library, patiently awaiting my attention with all it’s descriptions of Skye landscapes and Scottish hotels and ritual murder. (These are a few of my favorite things…)
Gianetta Brooke, our heroine, is a young dress-model, divorced from a proud writer-type and looking for a rest from the bustle of 1950s London. Her mother suggests a trip to a nice hotel in Camas Fhionnaridh – or Camasunary – on Skye. “…it’s at the back of beyond, so you go there, darling, and have a lovely time with the birds and the – the water, or whatever you said you wanted.” Reached by boat, beautiful, mountainous, and remote, Camasunary is exactly the majestic, timeless setting you would want for a trip to untamed Scotland. Also a great location for a series of COMPLETELY BONKERS MURDERS.
When Gianetta arrives at the hotel, she is dismayed to learn that a local teenager was murdered in a style that can only be described as “sacrificial,” her body laid out on a bonfire on the inhospitable face of the Blaven mountain. Possibly even more upsetting, Gianetta’s ex-husband Nicholas is a guest at the hotel, acting smug and flirting with a famous guest. In fact, all of the hotel guests are fascinating and unexpected people: an accomplished mountaineer, two women excited to “conquer” the peaks, a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, a travel writer with a pseudonym, a handsome country man, an admiral with a staunch moral code… If you’re thinking this is a great, albeit slightly predictable, set-up for a closed-room detective story, you’re entirely correct.
What Wildfire At Midnight lacks in originality of plot it makes up for in sumptuous descriptions of mountains lakes, bogs, the sky, and the birds that fly in it. Even while Gianetta discovers body after body, the scenery demands attention. Rightly so, too, because in the end, those peaks and lochs directly inform the method and meaning behind the murders. The traditional twists of “oh I know it’s that guy who did it,” and, inevitably, “wait, no, I was wrong?” made me way more jumpy when a choking mist has blinded our narrator from the murderer in pursuit. And I say this as someone who has spent not a little time in big, old, mostly empty Scottish hotels: A+ atmosphere on the interiors as well.
Gianetta isn’t as strong a main character as some of Mary Stewart’s other women, true, but I admired her determination to know the truth. Even when the police arrive at the scene, Gianetta is determined to keep searching, keep helping, keep smoking like a chimney. Her naturally generous disposition balances out other characters’ animosity towards one another (though who can blame them, since someone in the hotel is a crazed murderer). Even so, when push comes to treacherous shove, she’s a resourceful girl, heroic to the end of this city-girl-in-heathen-wilderness mystery novel story that kept me riveted and rather nervous until the last page.
Not quite so comforting as I’d intended, perhaps, but definitely an escape from my surroundings.
Now I’ve got to seriously commit myself to posting at least two reviews a year, which will be an improvement on my past streak. Apologies, appreciation, and adieu.