Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

Wildfire at Midnight is a murder mystery set on the Isle of Skye in 1953. It is nice, easy reading with plenty of atmospheric descriptions to help you picture the landscape in which this mystery unfolds.

The heroine, Gianetta, is a London-based model who decides to take a break on the remote Isle of Skye at a small hotel frequented by people in search of a fishing holiday. Upon arrival Gianetta is shocked to discover her ex-husband is a fellow guest at the hotel. She is further shocked to find a gruesome, ritualistic murder has just occurred on Blaven, one of the mountains on the outskirts of the Black Cuillins near to the hotel. It begins to seem probable that someone staying at the hotel is the murderer.

As the story unfolds we meet other guests at the hotel: a famous actress, a middle-aged couple on holiday, two single women on a climbing holiday together. When a second murder is discovered and then a third everyone begins to fear for their own safety. Gianetta and the police are searching for clues just as fast as they can. Will they find the murderer in time to prevent a fourth murder? When Gianetta finds some clues tucked into a book about ancient rituals she begins to fear the worst.

“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.”

“It had been only the most trivial of conversations, but it was my first acquaintance with the beautifully simple courtesy of the Highlander, the natural but almost royally formal bearing of the crofter who has lived all his life in the islands.”

Travel Notes: This is a great book choice for a visit to the Isle of Skye, especially if you are visiting the Black Cuillins or even Blaven itself.

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Five Red Herrings is a classic mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, a well-known British crime writer of the previous century. This book is set in the beautiful, rolling countryside of Galloway in the towns of Kircudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet, an area favorited by artists for many decades. Sayers picks up on this in her novel, choosing to make the murder victim and the six suspects local artists.

It is Sayer’s favorite hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is vacationing in the Kirkcudbright area and almost immediately becomes entangled in helping to solve the murder of a local artist whom no one likes. Wimsey embarks on investigating the six local artists closest to the situation and all the details of their alibis and suspicious movements. This plot is all about the details: exact train times, where trains stop, and how long it takes to bike between various locations. It leaves one with a great respect for the knowledge previous generations must have had of the means of transportation available to them.

Each of the six suspects’ alibis and movements are gone over in great detail and then various theories are hatched by the Scottish police before Lord Peter Wimsey reveals his own complicated, but perhaps ingenious, hypothesis. A murder reconstruction is ordered in the hopes that this reenactment will reveal the veracity of Wimsey’s theory, and perhaps even the killer himself.

The book becomes even more interesting knowing that Dorothy Sayers routinely spent time in the Kirkcudbright area herself and dedicates this volume to the inn keeper of whose inn she frequented. Sayers admits the locations and landscapes in this book, and the trains mentioned, are all real. For more information on Dorothy Sayers and her connection to Galloway, check out this site.

The Five Red Herrings is an excellent piece of classic mystery writing and is also an ideal book to read before visiting the Galloway region. It is also the kind of book that benefits from multiple readings as this allows the details of the story to be more deeply understood.

Travel Notes: You can stay at, or visit, the Ship Inn in Gatehouse of Fleet where Dorothy Sayers first stayed when she came to Galloway and to whose proprietor she dedicated this volume (it was known as the Anwoth Hotel in those days).

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

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The 39 Steps by Scottish author John Buchan is a classic spy thriller included on many great Scottish reading lists. Written in an easy-to-read style, and at just 149 pages, this little novel is an excellent choice for light holiday (vacation) reading.

The story begins in the summer of 1914 in London where Richard Hannay is minding his own business but feeling he “was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.” Intrigue and adventure fall into his lap when he allows a man from the street into his flat (apartment). The man, Scudder, claims to have faked his own death in order to escape an international spy ring out to steal British political secrets. When Hannay finds his houseguest dead, he feels compelled to flee for his own life. He rushes off to the area of Galloway in southwestern Scotland, a fugitive on the run from the police.

More adventures ensue as Hannay flees from both the police and what now appears to be the international spy ring Scudder was afraid of. Hannay meets various people who help him allude his pursuers just in the nick of time. After many harrowing situations, including the need to build a simple bomb to escape imprisonment, Hannay is able to return to London where he alerts the government to the impending danger. However, it turns out the only way to prevent the top secret intelligence from leaving England is to decipher the meaning of the phrase “the 39 steps.” Can Richard Hannay find the answer in time?

This is a great vintage read, and if you find yourself becoming attached to the character of Richard Hannay you will be delighted to find that John Buchan wrote four more novels starring Hannay!

Travel notes: Much of this novel takes place in the region of Galloway. Richard Hannay takes dinner at a pub in Moffat on his way south to London.