Posts Tagged ‘Quivering Bogs! Craggy Peaks!’

wildfire at midnight paperback dj mary stewart 001Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart ~ 1956. This edition: Hodder, 1970. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01945-X. 224 pages.

My rating: 6/10

From the dust jacket of the original edition, 1956:

Most people came to the Isle of Skye to climb the jagged peaks of Blaven or fish the many sparkling streams. Gianetta Brooke came to forget Nicholas Drury—the husband she had painfully divorced. The discovery that Nicholas numbered among the guests at the small inn was the first sign that hers was not to be a typical holiday . . .

Then Gianetta learned that on the treacherous slopes of Blaven, murder had been done . . . and although she had missed the first act of an eerie, unearthly crime, the murderer was to strike again and again before the finale was enacted on the mist-laden mountain—a finale that has Gianetta face-to-face with a madman.

My thought early on while reading Wildfire at Midnight, my fourth recent Mary Stewart read, was “Well here’s something a bit different!” This one is not so much a romance as an out-and-out suspense thriller/murder mystery. Not one, but three people meet their very unpleasant demises in this dark little tale of misplaced devotion. What romance is included is sketchy at best, and telegraphed broadly from very early on.

Beautiful London model Gianetta Drury – Janet, to her intimates – is feeling in need of a break from her busy life. It’s spring of 1953, and the city is getting ready for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation ceremony, and, as the excitement builds, so does Janet’s stress. Her career is at its peak; she hobnobs with the rich and famous on a daily basis; life is a constant whirl – but all she really wants is to get away from it all, to relax in some country peace and quiet, far from those who recognize her lovely face.

So off she hies herself to the remote and beautiful Isle of Skye in Scotland, to what she thinks will be a restful retreat. Tea and scones by a glowing peat fire, gentle walks in the heather, gazing at the mountains in the mild Scottish mist…

Ha! You just know this isn’t going to work out as planned, especially when the first person Janet meets as she checks into her hotel is a prominent actress, one Marcia Maling, settled in complete with luxurious convertible and handsome chauffeur. An assortment of fishermen and amateur climbers are also in residence, including famous mountaineer Ronald Beagle, and, to top it off, who should wander in but Janet’s ex. Nicholas Drury, a celebrated author, is visiting Skye to gather local colour for his next bestseller. He is sulkily broody and exceedingly handsome, and Janet’s heart skips a beat when she sees him again, though both pretend to be strangers to each other for the benefit of their fellow guests.

Tension is in the air, and Janet is very tuned in to it, though she is shocked to discover that one of the reasons for the brittle atmosphere is the unsolved murder of a local teenager on her eighteenth birthday just a week or two earlier. The young woman was found with her throat slit on a roaring bonfire halfway up the looming local mountain, Blaven, and though there is a likely suspect, there has been no arrest. (Not yet.)

Two more gruesome murders are on the horizon, with every person in the hotel soon becoming suspect; Janet’s dreamy retreat is now a living nightmare. Who can she really trust? And why is Nicholas taunting her so constantly, and popping up when least expected?

As usual, the physical setting of the story is described with vivid detail. Another nice touch is the ongoing radio broadcasts of Coronation preparations and updates of the ongoing attempt to climb Mount Everest playing in the background; the mountaineers in the group are glued to the radio, and massive bonfire piles are being built to fire on Coronation eve…

Wildfire at Midnight - dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956.

Wildfire at Midnight – dust jacket illustration, first edition, 1956. Isn’t this great? Much more mood-inducing and appropriate than the various depictions of the scantily clad heroine which most succeeding covers feature.

Here’s my summing-up opinion on Wildfire at Midnight.

While it started off well, and has its moments of deep appeal, the superficial characterizations of every single one of the characters – including our heroine – made this an ultimately less-than-completely-stellar read. The first murder was shocking; the second decidedly unexpected; and the third de trop – just too much to believe. (Plus I really liked that third victim!) And the heroine keeps wandering about in a downright silly manner, considering that there’s a diabolical killer at large. She wanders out alone, or with this gentleman or that into remote corners of the glen, just asking for something nasty to happen.

And it does.

The predictable final chase scene involves both a quivering bog and a craggy mountainside, plus bonus blinding mist. The unmasked murderer is totally creepy (and I guessed the identity correctly), but the far-fetched motive is tissue thin.

Well, acceptable reading for a drizzly October evening, and it was decidedly atmospheric throughout. A keeper, for sure, but of the “so bad it’s good” variety! Definitely dated, this very vintage one, but with some merits too, mostly regarding the fabulous depiction of place, and the real-life events playing out in the background, which become the most believable part of the fictional tale. I loved the image of the characters gathered ’round the radio, waiting for news of the Everest attempt, while their own safe little world is under threat from an unknown assassin!

And here’s a rather grand review, including an excerpt from the story:

Romantic Armchair Traveller Review: Wildfire at Midnight

Read Full Post »