Those who follow this blog may recall that a few months ago I wrote a very favourable review of Mary Stewart’s Madam, Shall We Talk? Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I lost no time in ordering her next novel, Wildfire at Midnight. Just like the previous novel, Wildfire at Midnight tells the story of a young Englishwoman on holiday who gets caught up in dark and evil doings.
Despite assertions to the contrary, Gianetta Brooke is having trouble coming to terms with the failure of her marriage to the writer Nicholas Drury. When her depression starts to affect her work as a model for a celebrated London couture house, her boss orders her away for a few weeks’ holiday. So Gianetta sets out for the Isle of Skye, in the hope that its remoteness will provide the peace and quiet she needs to restore her spirits. But among the dull, tweedy, fishing and hiking enthusiasts staying at the Camasunary Hotel are a famous actress with an appetite for men (whether married or no) and her ex-husband himself, and between the jealousies the actress excites and the jibes Nicholas levels at her every time they meet, Gianetta’s holiday is rather less restful than she had anticipated.
To complicate matters further, it turns out that Skye has recently been the scene of a brutal murder and that all the guests from the hotel are under suspicion. The tension thickens as everyone surreptitiously watches everyone else. Doors open at midnight, whispers are abruptly hushed at the creak of a floorboard, and Gianetta discovers that the shadows conceal many secrets. When two guests go missing and one of the members of the mountain rescue team sent out to search for them is murdered, things get even more frightening, all the more so as each murder contains barbaric elements of ancient sacrificial rites. Fear descends upon the hotel as the murderer continues to elude the police and everyone wonders where he will strike next. And then Gianetta’s suspicions fall on Nicholas, testing whatever residual feelings of love and loyalty she may still harbour for him.
Though the novel is very well-written and everything ends happily ever after – the mystery solved, the criminal brought to justice, and Gianetta herself restored to serenity and connubial bliss – trading in the hot Provençal sunshine of Madam, Will You Talk? for the harsh grey crags and treacherous fogs of Skye turned out to be a pretty poor deal, in my opinion. The sombre landscapes of the Hebrides mirror and magnify the human threat represented by the murderer: quicksand and deep gorges make for treacherous footing, while dense white fogs roll down unexpectedly from the mountaintops, suffocating and blinding. Alone unaffected by these hazards, the murderer creeps up behind his victims as they stumble blindly along, and with a single flash of his knife, it is all over. The resultant climate of fear and suspicion is as thick as the fog itself.
Literally and metaphorically concealing the truth from the hotel guests’ benighted eyes – fittingly, it is only when Gianetta emerges into the bright sunshine that the identity of the murderer is revealed to her – the fog also fulfils another function: it strips away all the familiar trappings of Gianetta’s life, wipes away all traces of the twentieth century, taking her back to the uncharted territories of a primeval world. London, its celebrities, its fashion shows, its sophistication, but also its crowds gathering for the coronation of the queen – that embodiment of law and justice – vanish as if they had never been, to be replaced by ancient rituals, human sacrifices, and the most basic of survival instincts. Echoing the end of The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the last scenes of the novel finds Gianetta on her hands and knees, crawling about the marshes in the fog, the last desperate attempt of the hunted to escape the hunter.
The reference to Conan Doyle is not gratuitous: though Mary Stewart is undoubtedly having fun by playing around with the canons of nineteenth-century detective fiction, she also draws on Doyle’s reflexion on atavism (heredity plays an important part in both The Hound of the Baskervilles and Wildfire at Midnight) and James Frazer’s work on ritual in The Golden Bough (which was published in 1894 and had an enormous influence on the following generations) to add meaning and depth to her own tale. Incidentally, I bought The Golden Bough shortly afterwards and am absolutely fascinated by Frazer’s analysis of ritualistic sacrifice in Ancient Greece and Rome, traditional African societies, and Christianity. Having such rituals re-enacted in the twentieth century was another story however: though engrossed, I confess I was far less amused than when reading Madam, Will You Talk? It was all a little too chilling.
Perhaps I would have reacted differently had I not foolishly waited to read it till the rest of the family was away on a trip and I was utterly alone in the house. In broad daylight I am fearless, but as soon as night falls it is a different matter. The downside of a huge house is that hiding-places for potential criminals are multiplied a hundredfold. As I read on, I became uncomfortably aware of the shadows massing behind me in the lamp-lit room. Going back upstairs after dinner, the spaces beyond bedroom doors gaped blackly, filled with countless terrors. Every creak of a beam was a footstep on the stair – even as I told myself I was being ridiculous, I was straining my ears for the sound of the murderer’s quiet breathing, certain that he was creeping towards me with drawn blade. To have gone up the spiral staircase to my attic bedroom, where anything might have climbed up the sheer walls of the tower to hide beneath my bed, was an impossibility. In the end, I scuttled down to the basement to sleep with the dogs. There is nothing like having three large and toothy German Shepherds near at hand to calm the nerves. I cursed Mary Stewart from the safety of my bed and slept like a baby.
© Florence Berlioz 2011