Thursday, May 7, 2015

Wildfire at Midnight

Wildfire at Midnight
by Mary Stewart

(Edited) Publisher's Blurb:
A young crofter's daughter is cruelly and ritually murdered on the bleak Scottish mountainside. In the deceptively idyllic Camasunary Hotel nearby, the beautiful but troubled Gianetta Brooke cannot seem to escape her pain or her past -- not even in the remote hotel on the Scottish Isle of Skye. When she discovers that her ex-husband has booked into the same hotel, the peaceful holiday for which she had hoped takes on quite another complexion.

Very soon Gianetta finds herself tangled in a web of rising fear and suspicion. One of her fellow guests, however, is also hiding secrets... and a skill and penchant for murder. And now the killer only has eyes for Gianetta....

My Reaction:
(As is so often the case, I felt that the blurb was full of spoilers, so I've edited it.)

Though the destination of this mystery-thriller was eminently predictable, the journey was captivating and held my interest better than many other, more finely crafted mysteries have done.

Some may say this novel feels dated.  I'd have to agree; however, while a couple instances of "datedness" frustrated or annoyed me, some others lent charm.  Reading one of these old thrillers from the 50s or 60s (this one was published in 1956, I believe) is pleasantly like watching an old movie.  Harking back to another time contributes as much to the escapist/vacation-book/beach-read feeling as the exotic settings Mary Stewart so often chose.

All in all, a pleasant read, though I was irritated by one or two aspects of the novel and its heroine.  (I'll detail them below, because they are distinctly spoilery.)

Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--  In the past (maybe even in other of Stewart's own books), I've made note of the word "scree", only to forget it until I came across it in yet another novel.  Well, if I haven't learned it from this book, there's no hope.  Scree scree scree scree scree!  It practically tumbles off the page.

--  "Bagnio" is a new word for me-- one that I doubt I'll be getting much use from.

--  The descriptions of Skye made me long for somewhere green and cool and misty-- with running water.  Oh, to live within walking distance of a chilly little stream or waterfall!  (Please excuse me; we're getting into the beginning of summer, in the Deep South.  Cool, fresh air and the bubbling sound of moving water is the stuff of fantasy.) 

--  So the mountains in this book are based on real mountains?  I just assumed Stewart had made them up!

--  You just know that Gianetta will end up back with her ex-husband by the end of the book, from the very first mention of him.  And yet we hardly see them interact until the very last pages-- and what we do see of them together doesn't make my heart go thumpity-thump.  Basically what I'm saying is that I wish she hadn't gotten back together with him.  I know; I'm a terrible person for not wanting the reunion of a formerly married couple, but they're not real, so there's no need to feel guilty about it.  ;o)

--  When Gianetta first met her ex-husband, Nicholas, "he had at that time-- he was twenty-nine-- three terrifyingly good novels to his credit, as well as a reputation for a scarifying tongue."  What?  Only three "terrifyingly good" novels?  Pfft!  What a slacker!  And a scarifying tongue, too.  A dream come true.  :o/

--  "Sunset and evening star-- all the works, in fact, in glorious Technicolor."  Yep.  Glorious Technicolor.  Would the under-30 crowd even get that reference, these days?  What about the under-20s?  (I'm starting to feel old-- older every year, actually.  I can't think why!)

--  Marcia Maling (an actress in the book) has a "famous three-cornered smile", which I can't quite picture... Some random person online suggests that it's the same thing as an enigmatic smile.  So... like Mona Lisa, then?  Or maybe it's more like the strange (2nd) illustration in this blog entry.  If that's what Marcia Maling's smile looked like, I can't say that I think much of the standards of beauty so appreciated by the men of this novel... In other words, ick.

--  "Muscular Christianity"?  Never heard of it.

--  "Oh, and there's an aged lady who I think is Cowdray-Simpson's mother and who knits all the time, my dear, in the most ghastly colors."  I always love a good mention of knitting or crocheting in a novel.  I do wonder, though, what those most ghastly colors might have been...

--  "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."

--  "I found myself wondering what was on his mind.  It couldn't just be the strain of starting a new book, though some stages, I knew, were hell."  It's always interesting to get a peek into what an author thinks of his or her own profession-- or of how s/he thinks others view it. 

--  Alma Corrigan is angry and hurt over her husband's obvious flirtation with Marcia Maling.  Gianetta says, "She couldn't help it, you know... She's been spoiled, I suppose, and she is such a lovely creature."  ...Ok.  Maybe she can't help being beautiful and spoiled, but she can darn well stop herself from flirting with married men.  Is a beautiful woman less accountable for her actions than a plain one, simply because she's gotten used to being desired and squabbled over?  What a load of hogwash!

Gianetta continues: "She had to have men's admiration, all the time, no matter who got hurt in the process.  I-- forgive me, but I'd put it behind you, if I were you.  Can't you begin to pretend it never happened?"  ...Um, what?  No, I don't think that's such great advice.  If Alma's willing to forgive, that's one thing, but just pretending that it never happened?  NO, don't do it.

Alma complains about her husband's behavior-- following Marcia around like a lap dog, etc.  "It's all very well saying she can't help it, but what about Hart?  Why should Hart be allowed to get away with that sort of thing?  I've a damned good mind to--" And so Little Miss Know-It-All Gianetta responds, "Do you want to keep your husband or don't you?"  Alma replies that she does, so the Fount of Wisdom goes on:  "Then leave him alone.  Don't you know yet that there's no room for pride in marriage?  You have to choose between the two.  If you can't keep quiet, then you must make up your mind to lose him.  If you want him, then swallow your pride and shut up.  It'll heal over; everything does, given time enough and a bit of peace."

...Now, I won't deny that there's some sense in that.  Yes, if you want to stay married and have a happy relationship with a person even after he's cheated on you, you will eventually have to accept what's happened and move past it.  Otherwise, you'll just make yourself miserable and probably drive him away.  BUT-- I don't agree that you should have to just take it and "shut up" without even broaching the topic.  If he's going to leave just because you dare give voice to your feelings, he's not worth having.  You need to have a serious discussion.  Figure out what went wrong and why, so that it won't go wrong again.  Mr. Idiot-Cheater needs to know-- and express to you-- that he's done wrong.  He needs to want to do better in the future, or else why would you even want to stay with him? 

UGH.  This part of the book just really, really frustrated me-- this sickening attitude of "if you're a good, intelligent woman who wants to keep her man, you need to shut up and forgive him if and when he cheats".   I wonder if Gianetta would've given the same advice to a husband whose wife had "wandered"... Probably not a two-way street.

--  Quite a bit of cigarette-smoking in this book.  Another sure sign of an older novel.

--  The Golden Bough plays a significant role in this novel.  I remember reading another book fairly recently (within a year or so, I'd guess) in which that title was also mentioned.  I wish I could remember which it was... Maybe another of Stewart's books.

--  It's annoying when a supposedly bright character does something so stupid as this... When Gianetta makes the connection between Heather's lost (and found) brooch and Roderick's description of the crime scene, instead of keeping her realization to herself, she blurts out the whole thing to him.  Why?  It makes no sense.  Lazy writing, in my humble opinion.

--  Don'tcha just love it when the Villain delightedly chats to his intended victim about past crimes?  "It was all quite easy," he tells her.  He's so proud of his handiwork!  Let him now proceed to spill each and every last bean.

-- "His eyes met mine ingenuously.  'I think,' he said, 'I must have been a little mad.'"

--  Oh, and then there's one of my very most favorite pet peeves-- a character who can't bring herself to hurt someone in self-defense.  SO annoying.  Gianetta threatens to throw a large stone at Roderick and/or crush his head with it, if he continues to climb up to her ledge.  He tauntingly replies that she "wouldn't do a thing like that"-- "couldn't do a thing like that"-- and no, she can't, so she weakly drops the stone back onto the ledge.  The mental image of a smashed head is just too much for poor old Gianetta.  "I put out both my hands as if to ward off the sight of the violence I could not do."  It's up to her wonderful ex-husband to scare off the Bad Guy, instead. 

Now, I wouldn't relish the sound or sight of smashing a head, either.  I have a low tolerance for gore.  Heck, I have a hard time even smashing a big, juicy bug-- but I'd like to think that I'd have the nerve to at least try to defend myself from someone intent on murder, though.  Wimping out like that is not a sign that you're wonderfully ladylike-- so gentle and sweet and perfect that you just can't bring your delicate little self to hurt another human being.  It's a sign that you may not be tough enough for a brutal world.  I'm not impressed, Gianetta.

--  Roderick, we learn, is truly cuckoo.  He drew a bad lot in life and inherited the crazy gene from his grandmother and father.  So, he's completely nuts-- and acts it, too, at the end of the book.  Laughing and singing at odd times--  doing all sorts of strange things.  But he very conveniently managed to keep all his craziness hidden for weeks.  I mean, he was living in close quarters with this small group of people.  They ate meals together and spoke to him on a daily basis, and no-one could tell he was mentally unstable until this one afternoon/evening when he's magically unable to contain the crazies any longer.  ...I am skeptical.

--  So, the madman has been apprehended and carted off to the lunatic asylum.  Now it's time to sort out the looove story.  Nicholas explains-- no, promises her-- that when Gianetta saw him kissing Marcia, he was "more kissed against that kissing".  He hastens to disabuse her of the idea that he spend the night with Marcia (that was poor Alma's loser of a husband she heard whispering behind the door).  No, nothing so bad as that.  "I merely got-- how shall I put it?-- momentarily waylaid, through no intention of my own."  Gianetta responds, "I'm sure you struggled madly," and Nicholas grins and says nothing.  Be still, my heart!  The romance!  Such swooning!

The heart-melting continues!
"He said: 'I'm not going to begin with apologies and self-abasement, though God knows you have plenty to forgive me for, and God knows, too, why you have apparently forgiven me.  I'll say all that to you later on.'"  ~uncontrollable, almost spasmodic eye-rolling~  Someone fetch me my smelling salts, please.

"Somehow the biggest shock to my egoism was when I found you'd even discarded my name, and my ring."  Well, we the readers know that she'd only shed them at the last moment, to avoid embarrassment when she learned he was at the hotel-- but REALLY?  Dude, you've been divorced for, what?  Three or four years?  Divorced because you were cheating on her.  And your poor pathetic little ego got a shock at the thought that she'd dared to discard your ring and your cursed name?!  Why in Hades should she have wanted to keep either?  You hadn't apologized-- made amends-- expressed remorse or even your continuing affection for her in all that time.  Why in the world should she not have wanted to rid herself of every reminder of your existence?  The nerve of this guy!  He's almost enough to make a man-hater of me.  Of course, then there's Gianetta, who's enough to make me loathe my own sex, as well.  A grand couple they make, the two of them!

But we're not done, yet.  They have some smoochy time (not described in detail, thank goodness), and then there's this exchange:

"'So you're going to let me walk straight back into your life?  After what I did?  After--'
'You said we'd not talk about that.'
'No, I like things made easy, don't I?  It would serve me right if you turned on me now, and told me to get back where I belonged, and stop making a mess of your life.'
'No,' I said.
. . .
'Just don't-- don't ever leave me again, Nicholas.  I don't think I could bear it.'
His arms tightened.  He said, almost with ferocity, 'No Gianetta, never again.'"

~tremulous sigh~
That was so... beautiful.
~wipes away a tear~

...Why can't my husband cheat on me so we can get a divorce and then fall back in love again without ever actually discussing what went wrong between us, so that there's no reason to suppose it won't just happen again?

--  So.  Is it any wonder that-- even though I swear to you that I knew for most of the book that Roderick was the murderer, despite the red herring evidence pointing to Nicholas-- I was wishing (up until CrazyRoderick replaced CharmingRoderick) that Gianetta would somehow end up with him instead?  I mean, sure, he's psychotic, but at least he wasn't an egomaniac cheater.  Right? ;o) 

--  Gosh, I do so love ripping into characters like this!  It makes up for the annoyance of reading about them in the first place.  ...And again, I actually enjoyed this book, when I wasn't fuming about cheaters and Gianetta's know-it-all act.

-- ETA:  Reading another reader's review reminded me of yet another frustration.  At some point in the novel, Gianetta begins to suspect Nicholas (the ex-husand) of being the murderer.  This is a man she was married to for at least a couple of years, remember, so it's a bit odd that she's so easily suspicious that this man she loved/still loves could be a killer.  Then, when the murderer's true identity is revealed, there's precious little discussion/internal monologue on the subject of, oh yeah, twenty minutes ago, I thought Nicholas was trying to kill me, but now I know he wasn't, so everything's peachy, tra la la.  It's not at all believable.  Or, well, not believable for a remotely intelligent person.  Nicholas should've been at least a little more disturbed, too, that the woman he supposedly loves could have suspected him of those brutal crimes.

I guess you're just not supposed to be thinking when you read these things!