Friday, September 13, 2013

Book Review - Joanna Challis's Murder on the Cliffs

Murder on the Cliffs (Daphne Du Maurier Book 1) by Joanna Challis
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: November 24th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Daphne Du Maurier has begged off another London season to spend some time in Cornwall, a desire her family just can't grasp, but reluctantly agrees to if she will stay with her mother's old nurse, Ewe Sinclaire, an inveterate gossip. Daphne has ambitions of being a writer and the lure of the windswept cliffs calls to her, as does the lost scrolls of Charlemagne watched over by the nuns at Rothmarten Abbey. If she happens to stumble upon gorgeous old houses with a Gothic air, well, so much the better. Little does she suspect that she will stumble upon a corpse on the beach on her very first morning walk.

The body of Victoria Bastion is beautiful even in death. Victoria was the local girl who worked her way into the kitchens of the great house, Padthaway, and then into the heart of Lord David. They were to be married in a weeks time, something that David's mother, Lady Hartley, was hoping to avoid at all costs. But would she murder Victoria just to stop the wedding? Plus David's sister Lianne, well, there are stories about her being touched and "not quite right," their father did kill himself after all. Daphne is welcomed into Padthaway because she has a snob appeal that just makes Lady Hartley giddy. The lady of the manor is able to entertain the daughter of the famous actor, Gerald Du Maurier, and perhaps make a match between her recently available son and Daphne. Daphne views this all as a little unseemly, not the least of which was avoiding the London season meant avoiding matchmaking, but then again, there is an undefinable something about David that attracts her. But she doesn't plan on using her unrestricted access to Padthaway to make a match, no she plans to solve a murder; because Victoria didn't die because of some accident, no matter how much the Hartleys hope that that will be the verdict.

More then anything it is Daphne's presence, as well as her poking around, that gets the investigation going. If it was left in the hands of Sir Edward, the investigator and tenant of the Hartleys, the case would most likely be marked down as accidental and things would continue on as they had, the rich protected, the poor lacking justice. Daphne promises Mrs. Bastion that she will figure out who the killer is and bring them to justice, all hopefully before her parents hear what is going on and demand she comes home. Because Daphne is playing with fire. She is in a nest of vipers and doesn't know which one has the poisonous bite.

When I first saw the movie Rebecca I was instantly in love with the world Daphne Du Maurier had created. I even have a teddy bear named Maxim de Winter. I soon not only feel in love with the book, but sneakily excised it from my mother's Franklin Library of Mysteries and installed it on my own bookshelves, I even carefully penned my name on the flyleaf so that it was "obviously" always mine. Rebecca has soon been followed by a few other titles from my mom's collectible books, which I hope she hasn't noticed, but I think she should have caught it by now if she ever was, but the fact remains that Rebecca is my favorite. Not only is it a classic in every since of the word, but it has perhaps the most memorable and evocative opening line ever: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Now, keep in mind this in the mid-nineties when I first read Rebecca, meaning no Wikipedia, no handy Amazon UK to get my British books, in other words, only the books or info I could find out in reference books or what was on the shelves at B. Dalton's. Therefore I had Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. That was it, that was the extent of Daphne Du Maurier here in the United States. Sure I found out later that she had written almost forty books, but at this time there where two. But there where books about her and sequels of Rebecca, all fictional, but all about Daphne. Therefore I picked up these books as a hope to forge more of a connection with the author of Rebecca. The first book I picked up was an abysmal sequel called Mrs. DeWinter that not only had none of the magic of Rebecca, but gave me a weird lasting impression of Mrs. Danvers hanging out in a tiny room in a house on a country lane surrounded by Rebecca's clothes... odd and, just, well odd. Years later, with new hope I picked up Justine Picardie's Daphne. This book which alternated between an unknown modern Bronte historian and Daphne Du Maurier and her Branwell Bronte obsession left much to be desired. Therefore when I heard about this series by Joanna Challis I was excited and trepidatious.

Murder on the Cliffs is easily the best meta Daphne Du Maurier fiction I have yet to read, and as you see, I have read quite a few. I will admit that, oddly, Daphne Du Maurier would be the most likely of all authors fictionalized to have actually had a secret career as sleuth just because there is so much we don't know about her life, and there's just so many secrets about her relationships and her sexuality... Of course, there is a certain suspension of disbelief that I had to force myself to accept when I would volubly say, oh, Gerald wouldn't do that, or, what about Menabilly, f this Padthaway, Maderley is based on Menabilly pure and simple. But sometimes the suspension was just too great. The main problem I had was with the few little glimpses we had of Gerald Du Maurier, her larger then life father. Their relationship would be easily classified in the "eww" category. There where many suggestions of incest and sexual molestation, later in Daphne's life she took up her father's ex lover, and there was his very strong dislike of anyone she was involved with. Therefore to have Gerald actively suggesting that Daphne get herself married... well, um, no. Thankfully, Joanna really relegated Gerald to the background so that I was able to push this aside.

Overall though the characters had such life and vitality, all with a slight nod and wink to Daphne's oeuvre. I mean, sure, Daphne's worship of men seemed a little forced, but the way she sparred with "Mr. Brown" was fabulous, especially if you know that this man is, in actuality, her future husband. Joanna was able to take some of the bones of Du Maurier and make them different, more fleshed out, but able to relate to the original text in such a way that it was a fun time getting little jokes, like Castle Mor. Characterization-wise, the apparent arrested development of Daphne and Lianne was a little annoying at times. You would never think that they were 21 and 15 respectively. With Lianne, it's kind of part of the character, with Daphne though... maybe it is a subtle way in which to bring out the possible abuse by retarding her development in some ways? Finally, the Bastion twins, if ever there was a Bronte homage that Du Maurier would approve of, this was it. With their Cathy and Heathcliff mentality, aw, just too perfect for an author who was beyond obsessed with the Brontes. Daphne would smile at this... or at least smirk.


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