REVIEW: Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart
Dear Ms. Stewart:
Among my first and most beloved romantic novels are the novels of Mary Stewart. Although probably best known for the Merlin fantasy trilogy, I first discovered the romantic suspense novels. When I saw that at least one was being rereleased I quickly asked to review, despite the fact that it was a print book and I haven’t read a genre book in print form in quite a while. Wildfire at Midnight was never my favorite (that spot goes to The Ivy Tree, with Airs Above the Ground close behind), but I liked it enough to reread over the years, and the depiction of the Isle of Skye has always stayed in my memory. I wondered how well the novel would hold up, and I was pleased to find that while it is most certainly a product of its time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Giannetta Drury is a divorced fashion model in her late 20s who impulsively decides to go to a remote lodge on the Isle of Skye to recuperate from the demands of her job and the madness of London during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. When she arrives she discovers that not only has a young woman been brutally murdered earlier in the month, but her former husband, Nicholas,his is also a guest at the lodge. She quickly removes her wedding ring (which she still wears) and registers in the hotel book under her maiden name.
The small lodge has about a dozen guests, and the types will be familiar to readers of mid-century murder mysteries. The unusual characteristic is that given the location of the lodge and the time of year, the majority of the guests have chosen it for its excellent fishing and mountain climbing opportunities. There are two married couples, give single men, a beautiful actress and her young, handsome chauffeur, a pair of women schoolteachers, and the locals who own and staff the lodge and provide fishing and mountain climbing expertise. Giannetta quickly gravitates toward the actress, Marcia Maling, and Roderick Grant, a handsome Scotsman who loves the mountains and is extremely knowledgeable about local folklore.
The murder plot ramps up fairly quickly and takes a well-trodden path. Two more murders are committed within a day or two of each other, and practically all the men are suspects. You’ll probably guess the murderer by process of elimination, but the motive for the murders is less predictable. The evocation of the setting is expertly done; the reader feels embedded in the wild, beautiful Scottish setting without ever feeling like she’s reading an infodump:
At half past nine on a summer’s evening in the Hebrides, the twilight has scarcely begun. There is, perhaps, with the slackening of the day’s brilliance, a somber note overlying the clear colors of sand and grass and rock, but this is no more than the drawing of the first thin blue veil. Indeed, night itself is nothing but a faint dusting-over of the day, a wash of silver through the still-warm gold of the afternoon.
The evening was very still, and though the rain-threatening clouds were slowly packing higher behind us in the southwest, the rest of the sky was clear and luminous. Above the ridge of the Sgurr na Stri, above and beyond the jagged peaks of the Cuillin, the sun’s warmth still lingered in the flushed air.
The style of the writing, the dialogue, and the characters’ behavior are very much of their time; a bluntly spoken character (a woman) is depicted as rude and aggressive, the women are almost all wives (or sultry sirens) first and individuals second. And everyone smokes like a chimney, despite all the physical activity.
Giannetta is one of Stewart’s more naive characters, which makes her naive indeed, but at least she is well aware of it. She is lovely, but we never hear that from her, and it’s a relief to have a beautiful heroine who isn’t constantly being told how beautiful she is by everyone else in the novel. Although she is divorced and has no expectations of getting back together with her ex-husband, she still has feelings for him, and he appears to have feelings for her.
Readers who cannot stand cheating might do well to take a pass. It is pretty clear that the trigger for Giannetta and Nicholas’ divorce was his adultery, which Giannetta at least partly attributes to their incompatibility and her youth, so self-blaming heroine ahoy. And then in the first few chapters, she discovers Nicholas locked in an embrace with the beautiful actress. We can’t be sure that Nicholas is the hero because Roderick is quite attractive and clearly smitten, but there’s plenty of unfinished business between the estranged couple.
The book should probably be categorized as a novel with romantic elements; the mystery is more important that the development of the romantic relationship, and while the couple do wind up together in the end, it’s not obvious who the hero is until almost the end. When we do find out, it’s the last chapter, the mystery is solved, and the book is over.
I don’t mean to sound less enthusiastic about the novel than I am. I had a terrific time revisiting it, but I know that the issues I’ve outlined can be deal breakers for some readers. Giannetta isn’t TSTL, by any means, but she still feels very young and naive despite being almost thirty, and since the book is written from the first person POV, we spend a lot of time in her head. I found her quite appealing, though; after reading so many contemporary romances where the heroine is either beautiful and incredibly gifted at one extreme or extremely lacking in confidence at the other, her unselfconsciousness is refreshing. There aren’t many books written today where a well-known model would be depicted as a relatively normal person.
If you haven’t read Mary Stewart before, this is a good place to start. It’s a relatively short novel (less than 220 printed pages), the story is linear and compact, the mystery is interesting. The book takes place over a few days and the fictional mountain climbing storyline takes place during the first successful ascent of Everest, which gives the story an added depth. Grade: B
I do love Stewart. She had a way with descriptive prose and settings that was just awesome. I only wish she were available in ebook. Some of my paper copies are almost 50 years old and falling apart from re-reading. “Wildfire” is one of the worst, since it’s one of my go-to’s when I want a Stewart fix, along with “Airs” and “Madam,Will You Talk”.
Interesting that “The Ivy Tree” is your favorite. It’s about my least favorite –“Thunder on the Right” — her experiment in third person, being the least. I always thought there was too much of a “Jane Eyre” aura to it, with the teenage girl in love with the married older man whose wife is a lunatic who burns the house down.
Thanks. I loved the Merlin trilogy – read it years and years ago, then listened to it on audio a few years ago. Wonderful writing. I’ve read a couple of her romantic suspense books, and have bought a number of them in the hopes of trying to find time, eventually, to read them. I’ll look forward to reading this one.
The Ivy Tree! I love that one too. That, and Madam, Will You Talk? are probably my two favorites. Oddly, I don’t ever remember reading Wildfire at Midnight and I wouldn’t have thought there was anything of Stewart’s I hadn’t read. I don’t think I’ll ever find a romantic suspense author I like better, or even think is halfway as good!
Though this is not my favorite Stewart romantic mystery novel, I have always enjoyed it. Partly, I think, because of the unusual setting and the mountain climbing aspect.
I would love to see you review “The Ivy Tree” as it’s one I’ve never been able to get into.
Another huge Stewart fan…. I love Wildfire and all of her books for the same reasons you describe – I find them utterly enthralling because of the gorgeous writing and her mastery of atmosphere. The suspense sometimes takes a back seat to the setting, and I never even notice until the end.
I say we take votes on which Stewart book Sunita should review next :-) The Stormy Petrel has a very similar setting, but with a more active and assertive heroine.
I adore Stewart – the lady never met an -ly adverb she didn’t love! The Ivy Tree is by far my favorite with Touch Not the Cat a close second. After reading your review, I may pull this one off the shelf. I do remember being bothered by the infidelity and thinking that the Gianetta succumbed to the hero a bit too easily in the end, but I am a sucker for a good romance with this trope.
I’ll happily do another Mary Stewart review! Let me see what is being re-released. The other romantic suspense author whose backlist is being published is Helen MacInnes. I wrote to the publisher and asked for an ARC but never got a reply. I’ll see if I can find one and review that too.
I agree that the Ivy Tree is almost OTT gothic, but that’s part of what I like about it. It’s really my sentimental favorite because I think it was the first Stewart I read; it’s certainly the one that sticks with me the most from my teenage years. And when I reread it, it still had that effect. I think the heroine resonated for me: she ran away a girl, got her life together, and came back a much stronger person. Plus, scarred tragic hero.
This wasn’t my favorite Stewart (with Thunder on the Right being my least favorite), probably because Giannetta isn’t her strongest heroine, and the romance is so underdeveloped it’s sort of strange.
But Mary Stewart really is such a wonderful stylist. I just reread Nine Coaches Waiting and was lost in admiration all over again. And Airs Above the Ground may be my all-time favorite (though it’s so hard to choose!)
I love this book! I love all her RS books though and always have trouble picking a favorite. If pressed, I’d probably choose Touch Not the Cat, but I’d immediately start thinking of reasons to like the others as well.
Hey Sunita, they are also re-releasing Victoria Holt/ Philippa Carr’s books in ebook. Most certainly not gothic but thought I’d mention it in case you would be interested in reviewing one. I’ve read a good deal of them years ago and not sure how well they stand against time.
Edited to add: not sure how one would classify Carr’s books gothic? romantic suspense?
@Keishon: I saw that! Jayne is reviewing The India Fan this month, I think. I’m really looking forward to her review.
Doesn’t the hero even manage to blame his mother-in-law for his infidelity? Couldn’t get past it — I remember feeling betrayed by MS at the time I read it, and even now it’s infuriating.
But I love The Stormy Petrel and The Rose Cottage. And that one set in Greece? Such atmosphere. Some of Barbara Michaels are similar in using the setting so well.
See now, Wildfire at Midnight is one of my favourite Mary Stewarts, just below This Rough Magic and above The Moonspinners (I have a complicated ranking system for my Stewarts :-).
She’s my favourite author, hands down, and I’m one of those who love all of her books from Madam, Will You Talk? right through to Touch Not the Cat, excluding the Arthur ones, Thunder on the Right, and the few she wrote after Cat–just my personal preference. It’s funny how we all have different loves, isn’t it?
My mother and I have always been split on The Ivy Tree. She never much cared for the adultery angle in that one, but it’s another of my favourites–though I would have said it owed more to Brat Farrar than Jane Eyre (and yes, hello, scarred hero!)
One of the (many) things Mary Stewart did so brilliantly well, in my opinion, was her secondary characters. The little “sorbo” travel writer in Wildfire is such a great addition. And the hero of this book, with all his flaws, still makes me swoon.
Thanks for the review. I’ll now be reading this afternoon, I think, instead of doing work…
I grew up w Holt, MacInnes, but Stewart always my favorite. Read the Moonspinners and Madam Will You Talk? recently, and although dated her writing is still a joy.
The Ivy Tree! Yes, please, review it. Also my first Stewart and my best loved and, yes, because of the similarities to Jane Eyre.
Nine Coaches Waiting? “Darling, don’t be so Sabine about it. It was only a kiss, after all.” /swoon (Yes, it was an asshole-thing for Raoul to say, but I was 15 and didn’t know any better.)
Ooh, Madam, Will You Talk?, The Moonspinners … I discovered The Moonspinners through the crazy Disney adaptation. It was my first Stewart.
And don’t forget My Brother Michael. Stewart wrote some yummy heroes.
“Airs” and “Madam, Will You Talk” are my favorites. The one with the actress and the dolphin – the title slips my mind right now – is also good. Most of her romantic suspense books are quite decent and hold up fairly well if one allows for being of course somewhat dated in certain aspects.
Re-reading Stewart always makes me want to travel and everybody writing romantic suspense these days owes her a depth of gratitude.
Oh, happy sighs! A Mary Stewart review. Love, love her books with “The Ivy Tree”, “This Rough Magic” and “The Moonspinners” being my three favorites. Well, really, almost everything through “Touch Not the Cat” .
Re: Helen MacInnes–I suspect you will find that most are very dated because they are very heavily wrapped up in the international politics of the day. Her first, “Assignment in Brittany” is a WWII setting and does hold up.
Re: Victoria Holt–“Mistress of Mellyn” — wonderful, wonderful Gothic. Love it and it does hold up because it is set in the 1800’s, so you aren’t hit with the ‘current events’ disconnect.
Madam, Will You Talk? is my all-time favorite of hers, and a favorite re-read period. I love the heroine, who really can handle herself in a very human but strong way, and the racing cars, and the Provençal setting that is so beautifully evoked. And Richard is an excellent hero.
The dolphin one mentioned by Ducky is “This Rough Magic”. I love her Greek settings, such as that one, too.
I loved many things about Wildfire at Midnight but found the hero’s infidelity and the attitude toward it very painful, and for that reason I’ve only re-read it once or twice. (“Only!” Shows the power of a Mary Stewart book…) I really like him otherwise, so I remember when I was a teenager trying to “pretend” the infidelity out of the story so I could still enjoy it. It’s the type of thing that starts you on your own writing path, in fact.
I love Wildfire at Midnight. And Stormy Petrel is a delight – as Kelly said, similar setting. Thanks for reminding me of these old and much re-read favourites :)
I would love it if you would review the Ivy Tree. I was trying to read it earlier, but I couldn’t get into it. I would appreciate help with the novel.
The Ivy Tree is a complicated book. It took me ages to realize what was going on when I first read it. There are actually two versions of the book, an English one and an American one. The American one had some stuff edited out at the beginning. I tracked down an English copy but it’s been a while since I compared them. There was a Mary Stewart Yahoo group that did a comparison of the two. I don’t know if it’s still around.
@Sunita: It’s really my sentimental favorite because I think it was the first Stewart I read;
Now, for me it was “The Moonspinners”. I read it in sixth grade, about the time the movie came out. I was a big Haley Mills fangirl back in the day (“Parent Trap”, anyone? Brian Keith, sigh!!!). That one was enough to get me hooked. I stopped saving my allowance for Hardy Boys books and started saving for Mary Stewart.
@Shannon: And that one set in Greece?
Which one? Her husband was an archaeologist, and she spent a lot of time in Greece. There’s “My Brother Michael”, set in Delphi, which is a WWII revenge story ; “This Rough Magic”, with the “Tempest” sub-plot, set on Corfu; “The Moonspinners”, set on Crete.
@MaryK: The American one had some stuff edited out at the beginning.
That I never knew. Nothing important to the plot, I hope? I have got a Readers Digest version of “Thornyhold”, that’s about half the length of the book. It cuts out everything but the major plot points.
@Laura Florand: @Laura Florand:
Ah, thanks for mentioning the title, I drew a blank there.
As to the book on topic – I never liked “Wildfire” very much mainly because the hero is such an arrogant and adulterous asshat.
I love most of Mary Stewart’s bo0ks because she created fully fleshed characters who come alive. She then places them in exotic locales and makes you see, hear, and smell the settings. I also like that while her heroines are usually beautiful, you don’t get told multiple times about their physical attributes, you learn through other’s reactions. In “Madam, Will You Talk”, the hero’s first words to the heroine are “All right, you beautiful bitch, where’s David?” We know immediately that Charity is lovely and that Richard is very, very angry. Stewart manages to show, not tell, and she’s very, very good at it.
I read my first Mary Stewart at 15 and have been a fan of her wonderful books ever since. I adore her wonderfully descriptive writing and she really manages to make her settings come vividly and gloriously to life.
I hadn’t read one of her books for years and got The Ivy Tree from the library a couple of months ago. I absolutely adored it – although I was struck by the number of times the characters lit a cigarette. That is the only thing dating the book – other than that, it was an absolutely fantastic read!
Thornyhold gets my vote for fave Stewart, followed by This Rough Magic, WaM, and the Merlin books. Wish they were available as ebooks.
I was excited to see that MacInnes’s books have now been released as ebooks. Agree that many with Cold War themes might not have worn well, but my fave is While Still We Live, a WWII story.
I can very firmly put my life long love affair with the Greek islands at Mary Stewarts door :)
I was 15 when I read The Moonspinners ( and 29 when I saw the very bizarre film !) – and as much as I like Wildfire at Midnight, my own favourites are Madam Will You Talk – and wouldn’t that one make a fab film ? – and This Rough Magic …. And when I finally got to go to the islands at the ripe old age of 18 – it was Corfu that was chosen – due in no small part to the marvellous Mary !
I’m another fan of the terrifically underrated Helen MacInnes – The Unconquerable being one of my favourites – particularly in view of what we now know about the history of that period of the Second World war
@cate: I’m getting curious about Helen MacInnes’s books but can someone tell me if they have any romance or romantic elements in them?
Yes, the hero and heroine are always together by the end of the story. Sometimes they start off as strangers, sometimes they are a married couple but there is always a core relationship threaded through the story. McInnes’ books are spy thrillers and her husband was an MI6 agent as well as a classics professor. Her earlier books are set in WW2 and the rest in the Cold War. It will be interesting to see whether they survive their times. I loved re-reading them when I first discovered them as a teenager.
MacInnes’ novel’s fall very firmly into the romantic suspense genre. As an aside – there is a 40’s film of Above Suspicion starring Joan Crawford & Fred MacMurray – but as usual( – see MS’s The Moonspinner’s) -very little of the original plot survived once the studio writers got their hands on it
So glad these are getting reprinted. I cut my romance reading teeth on Madam, Will You Talk and became a Stewart addict shortly thereafter. Now if they’d just release them in ebook format…!!!
Oh, Jayne, if you’ve never read MacInnes, start with “While Still We Live”. It’s so, so good. And wonderfully romantic.
Hm.. I haven’t read Mary Stewart, but her name sounds familiar. I think mom might have some of her books. I’ll check next time I visit her. ( Although with my luck, I am mixing Mary Stewart up with someone else :) )
Just got back from a long weekend in Mexico with only sporadic web access, so I am late to the conversation, but put me down as another Stewart “romantic suspense” fan! I think that term is very accurate for her non-Merlin books. My favorites would probably be (in order) THE IVY TREE (congrats to anyone who can review it without giving away the plot), MADAM WILL YOU TALK, and THE MOONSPINERS.