The Queen of fear

I recently drove down to Cornwall for a short break and decided I would read a novel connected to the local area. The hotel being located between two moors gave me the choice of The Hound of the Baskervilles, based on the legend of haunted Dartmoor in neighbouring Devon, or Jamaica Inn, located on Bodmin Moor, in Cornwall.

As I had passed the Jamaica Inn so many times along the A30 when visiting Cornwall, I thought it was high time to read Daphne du Maurier’s novel after being put off from doing so by Hitchcock’s film.

Published in 1936, it was her fourth novel and most successful up to that point, selling more copies in the first three months than her first three books combined. It established her as a serious novelist and led to her becoming one of the highest earning female authors in the UK in the 1950s.

She was only 29 when she wrote Jamaica Inn, a historical novel set in 1820 about wreckers and smugglers in Cornwall. Mary Yellan, the 23-year-old heroine, is forced to live with her aunt at the Jamaica Inn after her mother dies and discovers fairly quickly that it is run by a violent drunk smuggler who’s married to her aunt. Slowly, she learns of the dark secrets of the tavern, a thieves’ lair, where wagon loads of contraband are brought there in the middle of the night for hiding.

To Mary’s horror her Uncle Joss is the supposed head of the smuggling ring and she suspects he murdered, with the help of a mystery man, one of his co-smugglers who wanted out. Perhaps also to her horror, she finds herself falling in love with Jem, the younger brother of Joss who is a petty horse thief.

She wants to run away from the tavern but not without taking her poor aunt with her and turns to a vicar for help in a nearby village. But when her uncle in a drunken stupor confesses being a wrecker and murdering men, women and children, victims of the wrecked ships, she needs to escape. The vicar turns out not to be her saviour, but instead the mystery man and mastermind of the smuggling and wrecking venture.

Du Maurier is often mistakenly described as a romantic novelist, but nothing could be further from the truth as her work deals with much deeper subjects that are not normally associated with the genre. Neither in my opinion is Jamaica Inn a gothic romance as claimed on the back cover of my book and I would not necessarily compare it either to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, as some have done.

Enthusiasts of Du Maurier claim that the inspiration for Jamaica Inn came from her childhood interest to write an adventure story in the style of Treasure Island. She had once stayed at the Jamaica Inn and became interested in the tales of smuggling after becoming lost on Bodmin moor with her horse.

But her story is about male abuse of women, threats of rape and gang rape, murders, drunkenness, hostage-taking and even has a shootout at the end. A swashbuckling romance, it is not. There is indeed a lot of anger in the writing from the perspective of Mary Yellan, who has attitude and is never intimidated, not even by her seven foot giant of an uncle, a natural born killer. Mary Yellan doesn’t take any nonsense from men who are always trying to control her in some way. She’s smarter than them and knows to take her time. Her one goal is to remain independent of men and run her own farm one day, although Du Maurier does give ground on this narrative with a compromised ending.

The structure and content of the book reads more like a crime novel although with an unconventional setting. If placed in a contemporary setting with the uncle being a drug dealer and Mary Yellan plotting to escape him it would have all the makings of a traditional thriller.

Du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn at a time when the hard-boiled detective novels were just beginning to entertain American readers. But she didn’t have to look at the trends taking place across the Atlantic for inspiration. Her stock-in-trade was creating an environment of fear and she often found it within the confines of her beloved Cornwall. Her following book, Rebecca (See also, September 23, 2016), set on the Cornish coast was to become her most accomplished work, again wrongly labelled for many years as a gothic novel, but now regarded as an exceptional psychological thriller.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Parker – the steamroller

One of my favourite anti-heroes is Parker, the early sixties creation of Donald E. Westlake, who wrote a series of novels about the hard-boiled criminal under the name of Richard Stark.

Parker, a vicious man of few words and no remorse, doesn’t let anyone stand in his way and destroys any obstacle he comes up against.

He’s a sociopath who you would oddly want on your side, although Parker only has one side, his own. But the reader doesn’t mind and roots for him all the same.

Westlake’s introduction of Parker to the reader initially came in 1959 and appeared in several short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Then in 1962 he wrote the first Parker novel, The Hunter, later retitled Point Blank in the 1967 film with Lee Marvin playing the lead.

Within the opening paragraphs of the novel, the reader understands he’s angry as hell, doesn’t give a damn and is attractive to women who recognise him immediately as being “a bastard”. All of these observations are made while Parker is marching across New York’s George Washington Bridge in early morning rush hour. In fact, Westlake’s opening for Parker was inspired after he took the same walk across the bridge.

Westlake started putting pen to paper when he was a teenager and turned to full-time writing in 1960 when he was 27. He thought he could make additional money by writing paperbacks for the male market and chose the penname Stark to reflect his economical prose where style and story are stripped down for a racy read. His choice of Richard as a first name came from his favourite actor at the time, Richard Widmark.

When he started writing The Hunter in 1962 he thought it would only be a standalone novel because he held the view that bad guys always lose and Parker ends up arrested. But his editor had different ideas and told him that if Parker could escape custody he would have a series on his hands. He went on to publish over 20 Parker books with the final one being written just before his death in 2008.

Parker has attracted many filmmakers to produce their versions of the character and story, but Westlake never gave them permission to use the name of Parker because there was a reticence in allowing them to depict their own vision of his character. In the case of Point Blank, Lee Marvin was given the name of Walker, not Parker, while in the 1973 film, The Outfit, Robert Duvall’s character was called Macklin. Incidentally, Westlake said he preferred Duvall’s representation of Parker to Marvin’s.

Westlake was an accomplished screenwriter and his excellent script for the 1990 film The Grifters, based on a Jim Thompson novel, was nominated for an Academy Award. He also wrote the screenplay, The Stepfather, based on a story he’d co-written, which led to two sequels and a remake.

Westlake was a prolific author with more than 100 books published under various pseudonyms. He was versatile and humorous in his work, creating formidable plots and quick-fire dialogue. Under his real name he wrote comic capers about the hapless criminal character, John Dortmunder, first introduced in Bank Shot in 1972 and turned into a film with George C. Scott two years later. Dortmunder was the opposite to Parker and Westlake once said he enjoyed switching between the two characters to keep the ideas fresh.

During his career Westlake won three Edgar Awards, and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master title, the highest honour bestowed by the society.

His only regret about Parker was his name. If he’d known it was going to become a series he would have given the character a first name as well to avoid looking for alternative ways of saying, “Parker parked the car”.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

Montalbano’s final curtain call

Fans of Inspector Montalbano will have one final novel to savour before saying farewell to the likeable commissario following the recent death of the Italian author, Andrea Camilleri. The grand finale for the inspector was written by the Sicilian years ago, but kept under lock and key by his publisher for the day he either got fed up with the character or was no longer able to write any more.

One could guess Salvo Montalbano’s end. A bust-up with his cretinous superiors leads to his resignation and him opening a trattoria somewhere on the Aeolian Islands where he can end his days eating to his heart’s content. We will all have to wait patiently to see his fate.

Camilleri was a late bloomer in crime writing. He wrote the first book in the Montalbano series when he was 69, and went on to write 30 more novels until his death in July at the age of 93. About 10m of his novels have been sold around the world, boosted by the popular TV series sold in 20 countries. In addition, he wrote 60 other books, writing well into his 80s.

For much of his life he was a theatre and TV director and early in his career he specialised in plays by the Nobel laureate, Luigi Pirandello, a relation. For the Italian national broadcasting company, RAI, his early works included directing Inspector Maigret, the French police detective created by Georges Simenon, who later became an influence on his writing.

In the late 1970s, Camilleri, a one-time poet, self-published a novel after failing to find a publisher. It didn’t sell well. Another novel followed in the 1980s and it too flopped. For a left-wing intellectual like Camilleri, who now was in his mid-50s, this could not have been easy to accept, especially after his friend, the renowned Sicilian author, Leonardo Sciascia, once told him he was wasting his time with his latest manuscript.

Another decade past and now in his late 60s his third book, La Stagione della caccia, an historical novel, did rather well. But as his 70th birthday was approaching he published in 1994 The Shape of Water, the first Inspector Montalbano mystery, set in fictional Vigata, but in reality, Porto Empedocle, his place of birth on the western coast of Sicily.

It was an immediate success in Italy despite being written in a quirky mixture of Italian and Sicilian dialect, a technique of his own making.

There was nothing particularly innovatory about Inspector Montalbano, the freewheeling detective who constantly rails against the establishment. Even the traits of the gourmet investigator were borrowed from the character of the Spanish private detective, Pepe Carvalho, written by the Catalan author, Manuel Vazquez Montalban. As a tribute to the writer, Camilleri, named his own detective after him.

But what was new to readers were his stories of mostly local folk getting into complicated messes that only Montalbano could unravel. There was a casualness to his plots that appealed to many with no one really knowing in which direction the story was heading until the eighteenth chapter when everything is resolved. All of his novels are divided into 18 chapters.

He only touched upon the mafia in his books as secondary characters as he never wanted to glamorise them in the same way they were depicted in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. But his novels did cover fascism, something he fought against most of his life as an outspoken critic.

When he was young his early poetry won national prizes and he went on to study stage and film in Rome. He became used to his literary novels being rejected over almost a life time until he hit upon the crime genre where he could express his political views to a mass audience. And once he found his feet at a time when most people that age are planning their retirement homes, he excelled, and not even near blindness in his later years could stop him from writing as he would turn to dictating his books.

When Inspector Montalbano takes his last bow, let’s remember the long journey he took to reaching readers and viewers alike and the author who never gave up.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk