Books with a certain patina aren’t always the worst ones to read. If you are going on a holiday to Scotland and have planned to go to Skye (or if you never considered doing that), Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart should be part of the reading stuff to take along. Consider it a guidebook extraordinary when you do so.
Mary Stewart takes her readers to another out of the way place called Camasunary on the Isle of Skye. In fact, her heroine is tricked by her parents to go there. Being a well known model, she is looking to get out of London and the London set she moves in. Skye seems the ideal backwater to do this, and Camasunary is behind the moon for even Skye standards. The hotel she arrives in, though, is very much out of London, and very occupied by the London set and her ex-husband.
The setting for the mystery couldn’t be more spectacular, though. The landscape of Skye is ideal for Mary Stewart’s unique talent of landscape descriptions and taking her readers with her to the scene. And the setting at the foot of the mountains of Skye sets the tone for a mystery of mountain climbing and climbers.
Throughout the story, she takes you on a ride through the Celtic heritage of the region with a twist. The heritage that she builds on in this book is not really Celtic, but the mumbo-jumbo invented by 19th century historians and carried on to today in the silly invented rituals of self-proclaimed druids and Celtic revivalists. In the story she neatly shows how dangerous part knowledge becomes in the hands of the clueless.
The plot is well conceived to keep you guessing in several directions all at once and keep you unsure if you really got any clue at all of what is going on. As it becomes clearer that a crackpot is lose on the island, it becomes ever more difficult to keep anyone out of suspicion. Accordingly, the heroine flounders about; she doesn’t flounder heroically, she just gets herself from bad to worse trying to stay out of trouble. But like a bulldog, she can’t let go without answers.
The story takes you up and down the Blaven (Blà Bheinn) and the Cuillin Hills (An Cuilthionn, An Cuiltheann) while staying strictly confined to Camasunary. If you never thought of visiting Skye, this ook should make up your mind that it is one of the must see spots on earth. For once, she had to cheat a bit with the geography (there isn’t really that much at Camasunary and most definitely no hotel or even a road), but it doesn’t detract from her masterly description of the breathtaking views offered.
The book was published in 1956 and has been out of print for a number of years. Now it is available on Kindle.