Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart – a classic murder mystery thriller set on the Isle of Skye

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

 

A thriller and a murder mystery with a strong sense of place; Mary Stewart certainly knew how to plot and pick up the pace into an exciting story as in this novel. Set on the Isle of Skye, with a few geographical changes, the mountains, river side and other features almost become another character in this tautly written story. The weather, with drenching rain and dense mist among other conditions, means that the action is shaped by a lack of visibility or similar difficulties.  Originally published in 1956, this book deals with a mysterious murder in a small community centred around a hotel. Back in London excitement is increasing for the Coronation in 1953, but a group of people have gathered in this distant island for various reasons. The story is narrated by Gianetta, a model from London, who has travelled there after struggling with the long term effects of her divorce from Nicholas. Her arrival provokes discussion of a murder of a young woman some weeks before which was puzzling and seemingly without explanation. As the various guests at the hotel are described, Gianetta wonders just who is guilty, and how to cope with her ex husband’s presence.

 

Gianetta has an exotic ancestor, a notorious mistress and model for artists, for whom she was named. She met and married an older man, Nicholas, but their relationship floundered on his bad behaviour and frequent trips for his writing. Despite the fact that it has been some years since their divorce, her parents are unwilling to accept their separation. As she gets increasingly sad, they suggest that she retreats to the hotel on Skye for a break. When she arrives there, she learns that there is a mystery surrounding Blaven, one of the various local mountains. At the hotel, there is an interesting collection of people, including two couples where the attraction of the place is fishing, various men there for the climbing, and a writer. Two teachers are staying for walking and some climbing. Someone who is not interested in such activities is Marcia Marling, an actress between husbands who is also there for a rest with her chauffeur. She is a deeply unsettling presence for at least one of the wives, and when she seems interested in Nicholas, who has mysteriously turned up, Gianetta is also slightly surprised by her own reaction. When two of the guests go missing, everyone is mobilised to search, and it seems a tragic outcome is probable in Gianetta’s mind.  It seems that  a murderer is among them, and various incidents mean that there is a huge amount of mutual suspicion. Gianetta is not a suspect, but as various potential guilty parties emerge, she feels the oppression of suspicion around her and threatening her own life.

 

This is a brilliantly written thriller with much to recommend it to those who enjoy a good plot, a sense of place, and a closed community murder mystery. The mountains and landscape are so well described that it is almost possible to visualise the cliffs, climbs, bogs and rivers. The cold and wet overrides the fact that it is June, although the fact that it stays light late into the evening is a factor. Gianetta is a vibrant narrator, and the last part of the book is definitely page turning with suspense. I recommend this as a classic mystery thriller written by a writer at the height of her powers, and is still a dramatic classic read today. 

 

It is fascinating to see how this murder mystery is handled by a woman writer in the 1950s. It is not an intellectual puzzle, but a very active detection story.  It maintained my interest!

 

My daughter is still improving with pain killers and rest. We actually managed to get a supermarket delivery slot, so a couple of hours were spent fighting with a list and registration. We await the outcome with interest!

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart – Wise Women, a house and animals in a story of discovery

Thornyhold: Amazon.co.uk: Stewart, Mary: 9781444715057: Books

 

“I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to.” So begins this clever, almost mystical book which tells the story of Gilly, or Geillis, a young woman who discovers that life is not always straightforward. A lonely child growing up in a bleak Vicarage and unfriendly schools, her childhood is transformed by the visits of her mother’s cousin, also called Geillis. Magical, and mystical, she is a woman who makes a difference with her knowledge of the world and especially plants.  Her home is the same, full of secrets and opportunities, but also attracting the interest of others. This is a lovely book, written in Gilly’s voice, explaining her sadness but also her joys of discovery. The settings of this book are not exotic, unlike some of Stewart’s other books, but it speaks of the variation in landscape culminating in the beauty of the house Thornyhold and the surrounding Wiltshire countryside. Thornyhold itself is another character in the latter part of the book, beautifully described to create an image of house and garden that speaks loudly of the women who have gone before. This is the first Stewart novel I have read in several years; produced in 1988 it is a lovely book of a time past, of postwar England.

 

Gilly recalls how her mother had her occupations which left her with little time or even interest in her only child, as she was a woman with a sense of the “other” from her upbringing in New Zealand. Her father was equally preoccupied with his ministry and accordingly Gilly grew up alone, with no friends in a grim mining village and not really allowed pets. Her shining memories are of Geillis, her godmother or sponsor, and her visits explaining nature, plants and glimpses of the future. When Gilly is left alone in the world, she is left to grasp at a glorious promise of a house far away from her previous homes. It does not take long to realise that there are secrets connected with the house, and perhaps quite frightening elements of her new life to sort out. Can Geillis’ affection for this lonely young woman help in a world of challenges?

 

Mary Stewart is an author with a sure touch for the natural world, and secrets that go beyond the obvious. Though not everything is happy and comfortable throughout her novels, she is a reassuring and yet insightful writer of place and time. This novel makes a lot of the power of women to change their world in an interesting way. I really appreciate her observation of the plants and animals in this book, how the role of herbalist and healer has always been important, and how Gilly must learn about the new world around her. Very much a comfort read, this is a novel of darkness and light, hope and love, and special people. I recommend it as a great comfort read for tricky times, an easy read about the joy of flowers and life in many senses. 

 

This book rates as another discovery while looking over some of my fiction shelves for a different sort of read, despite the fact that I have plenty of newer shiny hardbacks to enjoy. I suppose it shows how I mange to read several books at once, by reading from different genres and so not getting confused – that’s the idea anyway! Who knows what my next discovery (or rediscovery) may be?

Adventure, Romance – it’s all happening here

Yes, I know I’ve had another gap, spent sorting out Sons for colleges and other exciting things. It has been a bit frustrating because I read so many books while away that I’m in danger of forgetting how good they were before I post about them here. Or returning them to the library. Or lending them out ( it keeps the numbers of books down to almost, maybe manageable). One friend offered to sort them out and put them into order. Maybe she hasn’t seen how many there are ; has she got two weeks to spare?

Anyway, I’ve lent her a few books to keep her going. One of which was The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart. 

It is not the sort of book I would naturally reach for, but I noticed that this author’s books had been reprinted and were available from http://www.thebookpeople.co.uk/ among others, though I picked this one up in a bargain book shop. Ever keen to mention easily available books I read this one surprisingly quickly. I had bought many years ago some of Stewart’s “Arthur” books but this one is very different.

This book features a young woman, Nicola Ferris, on holiday in a remote bit of Greece in ( I think) the 1950s. She works in Athens, so her Greek is good, which is handy when she walks into a murder scene, with attempted murder, hide and seek among caves, hills and cliffs, abduction and alpine plants. It is an adventure story, highly suitable for the younger reader as well as the not so young. It is quite a simple story, but sometimes the goodies and baddies are not so obvious, and there are many red herrings as well as (literally) cliff hangers. There is some romance, but nothing to frighten the horses, and it is more an adventure story for adults. A good book to fill a rainy afternoon, but not great literature. The sort of book to inspire a holiday choice, even if it is possibly a fictional setting. There are some adult themes here, such as a suggestion of domestic violence, which merit more thought, but to be honest it is more of a female led thriller.  It is an easy read, but well written with many twists and turns. A sort of murder mystery that works as an adventure story. Enjoyable.