The foot of this buttress was lipped by the fog, which held the lower ground still invisible under its pale tide. The glen itself, the loch, the long Atlantic bay, all lay hidden, drowned under the mist which stretched like a still white lake from Blaven to Sgurr na Stri, from Garsven to Marsco. And out of it, on every hand, the mountains rose, blue and purple and golden-green in the sunlight, swimming above the vaporous sea like fabulous islands. Below, blind terror might grope still in the choking grey here above, where I stood, was a new and golden world. I might have been alone in the dawn of time, watching the first mountains rear themselves out of the clouds of chaos. . . .
But I was not alone.
Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight is exactly what I expected from both the author and the genre: atmospheric, suspenseful, fast-paced, and predictable–not in the details of the murder plot but in the overall arc, which takes us from innocence through fear and suspicion to a pat romantic happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Stewart performs all of the necessary maneuvers for romantic suspense so well and also so briskly (it’s just over 200 mass market paperback-sized pages) that it never feels overblown or self-important the way I sometimes feel more recent thrillers become. She isn’t trying to “transcend the genre”: she’s entirely at home in it and as a result, so was I.
Stewart is also a fine stylist–not as elegant or original as Daphne du Maurier, but in the same vein. Here, for instance, is one of many vivid evocations of the Isle of Skye, where the action takes place:
Above us towered the enormous cliffs of the south ridge, gleaming-black with rain, rearing steeply out of the precipitous scree like a roach-backed monster from the waves. The scree itself was terrifying enough. It fell away from the foot of the upper cliffs, hundreds of feet of fallen stone, slippery and overgrown and treacherous with hidden holes and loose rocks, which looked as if a false step might bring half the mountain-side down in one murderous avalanche. . . .
I stopped and looked up. Streams of wind-torn mist raced and broke round the buttresses of the dreadful rock; against its sheer precipices the driven clouds wrecked themselves in swirls of smoke; and, black and terrible, above the movement of the storm, behind the racing riot of grey cloud, loomed and vanished and loomed again the great devil’s pinnacles that broke the sky and split the winds into streaming rack. Blaven flew its storms like a banner.
The mountains are not just the setting for the malevolence that unfolds but (in a rather absurd but still chilling way) the motive for them–a nice touch, I thought. And they also set us up for a thrilling denouement played out against their crags and crevices:
I went up the end of that buttress like a cat, like a lizard, finding holds where no holds were, gripping the rough rock with stockinged feet and fingers which seemed endowed with miraculous, prehensile strength. . . .
The enormous wing of rock soared up in front of me up to the high crags. Its top was, perhaps, eight feet wide, and strode upwards at a dizzy angle, in giant steps and serrations, like an enormous ruined staircase. I had landed, somehow, on the lowest tread, and I flung myself frantically at the face of the next step, just as the ring of boots on rock told me that he had started after me.
The particular terrors of rock-climbing, hardly a safe or relaxing sport under ordinary circumstances (at least to a risk-averse person like me), give the necessary cliche of a chase scene some fresh excitement.
I picked this old copy off my shelf somewhat randomly and am glad I did: it was a perfect afternoon’s diversion, better, perhaps, than This Rough Magic, which I read a couple of years ago with my book group. I have a couple other vintage Stewart paperbacks on the same shelf and I also picked up some ebooks of hers when they were on sale a while ago: this is a good reminder to me to actually read them! I was also reminded on Twitter of her Arthurian novels, which I am fairly sure I read years ago and would like to revisit.
I also like Wildfire at Midnight better than This Rough Magic. Other books of hers set in Greece (My Brother Michael, The Moonspinners) seem less touristy than the latter.