Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart (1956)

Gianetta, named after her disreputable great-grandmother, Gianetta Fox who was once the rage of London, had just finished school and completed a course for mannequins. At a showing where she modelled an historical dress, she met Nicholas Drury, a successful author with a caustic tongue, who at 29 years of age was ten years her senior. Three months later they were married but in two years the marriage was as good as over and they were divorced not long afterwards.
Four years later Gianetta was exhausted and desperate for a holiday. She wanted somewhere away from the crowds of London, from everything else that oppressed her, and the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides was the perfect fit. Or so she thought.
Not long after her arrival she learns that a young woman had been murdered on Blaven (Blà Bheinn) and then, of all people, her surly ex-husband turns up at the hotel where she was staying.

‘What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate who could hold her own in the fast-moving society to which he was accustomed; what he’d actually got was only Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montefiore’s salons and the Mayfair mannequin factory.’

As is usual in Mary Stewart’s books, the setting is a major part of the story. She features exotic locations as diverse as Corfu, Austria and Lebanon and in Wildfire at Midnight, the highlands of Scotland. Culture, Literature and History find their way into her novels, and it so happened that as I was reading about the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London, seventy years later in 2022, the news came that the Queen had died in Scotland at the age of 96.

Mary Stewart’s writing creates a mounting intensity that makes it very difficult to put her books aside once you become gripped by them. I’ve discovered that I often miss some subtle clues because I’m consumed by the suspense, and it’s only as I look back that I see them properly. This alone make her books conducive to being re-read. My daughter read this book just after I did and we compared notes – which is fun to do as we both had different ideas about some things and missed different clues.
A theme in the book was mountaineering and one of the characters was glued to the radio during the Everest climb as it was broadcast. We read later on that this attempt in 1953 to reach the summit of Mt Everest was successful.

Wildfire at Midnight reminded me of John Buchan’s 1927 book Witch Wood also set in Scotland, but it wasn’t so much the Scottish setting but another similarity that made a connection for me. I won’t say what that connection was as it might give a clue as to the murderer. 🙂

There are also allusions to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (interestingly, these are used in another of Buchan’s books, Mr Standfast).
The Mary Stewart Reading blog has some thoughts on this.
Atmosphere, mystery, danger, an eerie chase through a mist-covered bog, a mountain of death, a heroine who doesn’t know who to trust…another un-put-downable book by Mary Stewart.


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