Mention the Hebrides and I remember a rainy afternoon on the Isle of Skye with a pot of black tea and the best scones I have ever tasted, the extraordinary kindness of the Scots towards a young, backpacking stranger, and Wildfire At Midnight. A gothicky romantic suspense that became my first introduction to Mary Stewart, Wildfire At Midnight remains a comfort read I re-savour regularly.
1953. London is in the grips of coronation fever and weary Gianetta “Janet” Brooke flees the city for a quiet holiday on the Scottish island of Skye. But a strange atmosphere hangs over the isolated little hotel, a tension that is heightened by any mention of Blaven, the nearest peak of the Black Cuillin mountains. Then, among the fishing enthusiasts, climbers, and an old acquaintance who populate the hotel, Giannetta is shocked to run into her ex-husband.
Divorced four years ago after a disastrous marriage, neither is keen to advertise they know each other. While Nicholas Drury researches the folklore of the area to collect material for his latest novel, Gianetta befriends the other guests, in particular Roderick Grant, who explains the reason everybody is upset: a local crofter’s daughter was found ritualistically murdered on Blaven a scant three weeks earlier. Soon after Giannetta’s arrival, tragedy strikes again. And this time, police interest turns from the first victim’s boyfriend to the hotel guests.
In the article “Teller of Tales" (The Writer, Volume 83, No. 5, May 1970), Mary Stewart says, "Wildfire at Midnight was an attempt at something different [from her previous writings], the classic closed-room detective story with restricted action, a biggish cast, and a closely circular plot. It taught me technically a great deal, but mainly that the detective story, with its emphasis on plot rather than people, is not for me. What mattered to me was not the mystery, but the choice the heroine faces between personal and larger loyalties."
The classic mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie may not have satisfied Mary Stewart’s professional inclinations, but Wildfire At Midnight is as successful an experiment as any mystery lover could wish. Readers looking for the romantic aspect of Stewart’s storytelling, however, may come away a little less impressed, unless old-school alpha behaviour appeals.
At a brief 175 pages Wildfire At Midnight is a quick read but the intrigue makes every page absorbing and the whole is as thrilling as any mystery double the length. If you enjoy the classic mystery authors such as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr (like I do), for example, Wildfire At Midnight should warm the cockles of your heart. Suspects abound; the Inspector is the sternly competent, pipe-smoking, bushy-eyebrowed character of numerous black-and-white British films of the Thirties and Forties; and the heroine is kindly, caring, and prone to end up in the thick of devious goings-on.
On the other hand, this is not a light-hearted romp of the breezily cheerful country-house type. In Wildfire At Midnight, death by murder is a tragedy instead of a mere plot point, and its pall affects the mood and temper of everyone in the hotel. Once it becomes evident that the murderer is not done with his or her crimes, tension and fear escalates as hotel guests realise they, too, may be in danger. Having developed old and new friendships and aware that the guilty person, if found, will be hanged and “buried in quicklime in a prison yard” (p. 108), Giannetta has to fight not to buckle during her struggle to weigh the morality of loyalties against justice and civic duty. Around her, too, brittle nerves stir up heated arguments as the hotel guests begin to suspect one another. The question of when co-operation with the authorities becomes a matter of spying on each other culminates in "strong opinions" (p. 115-6) about whether physical violence has any acceptable place in civilized society.
As for the love interests, I cannot say much about them without spoiling that particular subplot. Two men express interest in Giannetta: her ex-husband Nicholas Drury and climber Roderick Grant. I was a young and definitely unsophisticated teenager the first time I read Wildfire At Midnight and the outcome of the romantic triangle took me by utter, and not very pleasant, surprise. None of my re-readings have altered that first impression, yet I have learned to set the resolution to the romance aside. The result is immense enjoyment of the ambiance, the mystery, the skilfully sketched assortment of quirky and colourful characters, and the setting.
One can always rely on Mary Stewart’s descriptive genius to create a setting so breathtakingly real that it seems to be a memory of one’s own rather than an imagined place. This is perhaps particularly the case with northern England and Scotland; born in Durham and educated there and in Yorkshire, Stewart later settled in Scotland. Wildfire At Midnight also borrows specialist knowledge from her husband, noted Scottish geologist Sir Frederick Stewart, and draws upon the couple’s travels: “[...] the one background I owe entirely to him is the Scottish one for Wildfire At Midnight. We travelled every inch of Scotland together.” (Interview in Counterpoint, edited by Roy Newquist, published by Rand McNally & Company, 1964, page 564.) The rain-lashed island setting with its suddenly descending fogs, perilous mountains, treacherous bogs, and toasty peat fires by which to warm oneself with a glass of sherry, is a character in its own right. It is neither filler nor a device to create suspenseful moodiness (although suspenseful and moody are the resulting atmosphere), but is actually even more integral to the plot than usual with Stewart, who always takes care to match her stories believably to the chosen location.
Wildfire At Midnight has aged rather well not because it still seems modern - for good or ill, it does not, and some of its more dated attitudes require indulgence of the conventions and sensibilities of another era - or because it touches on a discussion of ethics that will probably always remain a human dilemma; it has aged well because it fits so comfortably into a beloved genre that thrives as much on nostalgia as it does on a well-conceived mystery. It shows Mary Stewart the plotter at her best; and for those seeking an armchair trip to Scotland, well, Mary Stewart’s Isle Of Skye is almost every bit as striking as the real one.
(Fawcett Crest paperback, 1956, p. 73-4):
"The night had been black and wild, and after several fruitless and exhausting hours of climbing and shouting in the blustering darkness, the searchers had straggled home in the early hours of daylight, to snatch food and a little sleep before setting out, haggard-eyed and weary, for a further search. Bill Persimmon had telephoned for the local rescue team, and about nine next morning, a force some twenty strong set out once again for what must now certainly be reckoned the scene of an accident.
This time, I went with them. Even if I couldn't rock-climb, I would at least provide another pair of eyes, and I could help to cover some of the vast areas of scree and rough heather bordering the Black Spout.
The morning - I remembered with vague surprise that it was the eve of Coronation Day - had broken grey and forbidding. The wind still lurched among the cairns and heather braes with inconsequent violence, and the frequent showers of rain were arrow-sharp and heavy. We were all muffled to the eyes, and trudged our way up the sodden glen with heads bent to meet the vicious stabbing of the rain.
It was a little better as we came under the shelter of the hill where Roderick and I had talked two nights ago, but, as we struggled on to the crest of it, the wind met us again in force. The raindrops drove like nails before it, and I turned my back to it for a moment's respite. The storm gusts leaped past me, wrenching at my coat, and fled down the valley towards the sea.
The hotel looked far away and small and lonely, with, behind it, the sea loch whitening under the racing feet of the wind. I saw a car move slowly away from the porch, and creep along the storm-lashed track to Strathaird. It was a big car, cream, with a black convertible top.
'Marcia Maling's car,' said a voice at my elbow."