Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart (1956)

Book review by Mary P: This was Mary Stewart’s second novel. It is written in the first person, so throughout we have the viewpoint of Gianetta. She is a model, divorced, and making her own living in London. Feeling under pressure her family suggest that she takes a holiday at a hotel in Skye. When she arrives she finds the hotel full of guests, there to hunt, fish and climb. Suddenly we feel we are in an Agatha Christie mystery in a country house. After her arrival she learns that her ex-husband from whom she had an acrimonious divorce is also a guest at the hotel.

Gianetta is told that a local girl has been killed and the murderer has not yet been apprehended. Everyone is under suspicion, and there are two further murders, this time of hotel guests. Red herrings point to Gianetta’s ex-husband, and she fails to pass on evidence that could incriminate him. The murderer is revealed, in a finale in which our heroine is in jeopardy, and his rather thin motive for all three murders is revealed.

Mary Stewart is known for developing a romantic mystery genre. Wildfire at Midnight is definitely more mystery than romance. The romance element is rather unsatisfactory as the divorced couple seem reconciled rather too hastily, given what we have been told were the reasons for their divorce.

The author is more convincing when it comes to descriptions of landscape. The story is set in a very small area of Skye in the vicinity of Blaven, one of several Munros on Skye. She is obviously familiar with the mountains, and she describes visitors, climbing and fishing there as well as much frenetic activity when guests are sent out in search parties to find those who go missing. These passages are gripping, and set up tension in the narrative.

Although the story is set in a very small area of the country we are given glimpses of the outside world, which often mirror what is happening on Skye. Gianetta chooses to leave London during the Coronation. We are reminded of this event, and the bonfires on Skye in readiness for the celebrations, in contrast to the bonfires lit to burn the bodies of two of the victims. We are also given news of the success of the Everest expedition, in a novel where climbing is central, and attitudes to the mountains are the motive for the killings.

Mary Stewart does not develop her characters, and they are little more than stereotypes. Gianetta is an independent, plucky heroine, but other women are pictured rather more negatively as for example jealous wives, empty headed, and vain celebrities, and the novel ends with our heroine back with her husband, and this is clearly where the authors thinks she belongs.

So, a pleasant read, and since I have a library omnibus copy with two other of her novels in the edition, and time on my hands, I may well read some more.

P.S. Didn’t they smoke a lot in the 1950s! Margaret Lockwood would make a fine Gianetta.

2 thoughts on “Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart (1956)

  1. It’s not one of her best but it does make one want to visit Skye – at the right time of year and with a lot of warm clothing! My favorites are Madam Will You Talk, This Rough Magic, Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, and The Ivy Tree.

  2. I read Wildfire at Midnight too and enjoyed it despite (or perhaps because of) the fact I found it really quite silly! Once I’d suspended my disbelief at the heroine being stalked across misty Scottish moors by a crazed killer I was gripped and, as you say, the landscape of Skye is nicely evoked.

    One thing I appreciated was the realistic reactions from the other hotel guests to the murders. Quite often deaths in detective fiction are, I think, really just plot devices so it was refreshing to see characters be genuinely shocked and disturbed by the murders taking place around them and seem to have compassion for the victims.

    I agree that the depiction of women was a little disappointing though – there’s quite a lot of uncritical discussion of women’s being loyal to their husbands (even if they’re adulterers or even potentially murderers) which I found jarring. And I was left with the feeling that Gianetta would pretty quickly come to regret reuniting with her husband!

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