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.

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Hoping for a big thriller year

Last year proved to be a relatively quiet 12 months for the thriller market in terms of blockbusters. The publishing industry did its utmost to meet readers’ interests by offering the usual plethora of subgenres but there was no stand-out thriller as in previous years.

The ever popular domestic noir market still looks as strong as ever following the runaway successes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and later Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train.

This subgenre has seen in recent years an exponential growth in interest as it changed the reading habits of many women who are preferring to seek out female-centric titles that keep them on the edge of their seats.

Women form the majority of thriller readers and their surge in interest in domestic noir has built up sales in the UK market of around 20m books per year.

This type of crime fiction is not only changing the psychological makeup of women in novels, but is possibly challenging the traditional narratives of the thriller.

The use of multiple narrators, a general absence of typical thriller tropes, and their softer climaxes seem to be altering the perspective of what is chilling, given that the stories often revolve around humdrum urban lives.

But framing a story around terrible marriages and abusive relationships is nothing new to the thriller market. It is a deeply mined subject of the traditional psychological thriller. Rebecca, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Dial M for Murder are all examples of the subgenres popularity in earlier decades.

Perhaps the real difference between the older classics and the modern domestic noir, is, as others have already pointed out, that the investigation being carried out by the writer is really about the breakdown of the relationship rather than the murder itself. The murder is no more than a McGuffin.

Money and control are often at the heart of a thriller, and it is no different in domestic noir. The woman is invariably dependent on a husband who is unfaithful and she feels her position becoming suddenly vulnerable because the man poses a threat.

But unlike the archetypically doomed femme fatales of the past – written mostly by men – the female characters in domestic noir tend to end up coming out on top. They are no longer the victims.

Amy in Gone Girl manages to get the upper hand, Jodi, a psychologist, in The Silent Wife, gets away with despatching her philandering partner, while in Season to Taste, dear Lizzie Prain has no qualms in eating her husband.

The thriller market has always been the golden goose for publishers, film makers, theatre and radio producers, alike. Nearly everyone from all backgrounds enjoys being transferred to an edgy world where they can be frightened or held in suspense.

It is an organic genre that keeps evolving and sub-dividing into subgenres. How long domestic noir will remain popular is anyone’s guess. This trend will no doubt reach a limit amongst readers and will probably give way one day to a new vogue in crime fiction, in the same way that Nordic noir thrillers are now starting to lose their shine.

Could the absence of a big blockbuster in 2017 be a sign of uncertainty about the direction that the thriller market is currently heading? Even in the cinema it seems to me that fewer traditional thrillers are being made. Is there some uncertainty about what people really want from a thriller today as there is so much competition from other genres?

A relatively fallow year for crime fiction doesn’t mean anything, of course, as the whole of the book market goes through such trends from time to time. While it is not a rare phenomenon it does seem curious that there was no real big splash in the thriller market last year given the huge number of books in the marketplace.

Too much choice? Not enough book critics in the media shining their torches on hidden gems? I have no idea how publishing houses pick and choose books, but as a consumer of their products I would urge them to go out on a limb and just take more risks.

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Last night I dreamt I went to …

During the summer I took refuge in a second hand bookshop in Lyme Regis to get out of the pouring rain and found myself weaving around the higgledy-piggledy assortment of shelves, lazily scanning hundreds of titles to read.

The aptly named Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street stocks metres of books in every direction. It also has a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a cosy fire, and if you are a slow reader they can put you up in overnight accommodation. It’s a book lover’s paradise. (

For some reason I felt myself being drawn to the back of the shop and to a particular shelf where I found the book I’d been longing to read but never got around to doing so This was a sign, I thought, and grabbed the second-hand paperback off the shelf before anyone else suddenly took a fancy to it.

The well-worn book in my hands of Rebecca was published by Pan Books in 1978 under a fourth print run. Daphne du Maurier’s classic suspense story was first published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz and became an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print and according to the publishers Virago it still sells around 4,000 a month.

I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca many times and was curious to know why Hitchcock didn’t think much of his movie that brought him his first fame in Hollywood. I was rather hoping by reading the book it might shed some light on why he had taken this harsh attitude towards his movie.

The 1940 film was Hitchcock’s first in Hollywood and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Hitchcock was a close friend of Du Maurier’s father and wanted to make Rebecca several years earlier, but was unable to afford the rights to the novel. He’d already turned her novel Jamaica Inn into a film and would later direct her short story The Birds into one of his best known movies.

It got off to a bad start when the producer David O. Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville had worked on. Selznick who was busy producing Gone With the Wind at the time was renowned for loving and understanding books. He’d insisted that the film faithfully adapted the plot of the book, including scenes and dialogues.

Here was a monumental clash of artistic differences – the producer seeking a literal approach versus the director’s visceral approach. It led to extensive re-writes, but Selznick got his movie and won Best Picture for the second year in a row after winning the same award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The black and white photography also won an Oscar and was put to good effect to convey the darkness of the book.

It might not have been the film that Hitchcock wanted to make but without Selznick’s interference some commentators doubt that it would have been so successful as Selznick brought a solid structure to the story, something that Hitchcock would eventually adopt in his later works.

Adapting the gothic melodrama to screen no doubt helped Hitchcock expand his repertoire from his trademark of sharp shocks to more moodier themes which eventually established him as an all-time great film director.

Hitchcock captures well the shy girl (Joan Fontaine) who suddenly enters the rich world of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and Manderley, his beautiful mansion by the sea. Mr de Winter’s immature bride acts at first passively towards the large household of servants led by the pernicious housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), who instils the idea that she is not worthy of replacing Rebecca, the late Mrs de Winter. From that moment on she is tormented by the ghost of Rebecca until she grows up to confront her demon and learn the truth about her death.

Du Maurier’s novel is a study of a new wife’s jealousy of her husband’s first wife who eventually goes on to discover that everything she had built up in her head is completely wrong. Echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, possibly, but as Du Maurier admitted it was a story about a fairly common theme. In reality, it was based on her own marital experience.

Both the book and Hitchcock’s film were well received by the public. The toxic combination of jealousy and suspense has led to several versions of the story reaching the stage, television, radio, Bollywood, and even the opera.

The book is apparently read and re-read by fans the world over with many of them seeing something different in the characters each time. It is easy to understand its popularity just by reading the first opening sentence, one of the most memorable in classic fiction. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’


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Hitchcock’s blueprint to success

Alfred Hitchcock never took a writing credit for any of his films but his presence is evident when watching all his movies. I doubt whether there is a single cinema goer who cannot spot a Hitchcock film.

This is mainly because of the clarity he demanded from a script and his personal supervision of writers. He wanted a blueprint of the film he was about to make as there was little room for improvisation once the cameras began rolling. He hammered into the writers that they had to explain the story with vision. He once famously remarked, “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”

Hitchcock would typically choose a story where he knew he could exploit a single emotion to the max. Creating an emotion to the point that it would make the audience feel it in their guts was Hitchcock’s stock-in-trade.

The Birds based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novelette is a good example of this as the story goes nowhere, but Hitchcock manages to work his magic all the same. The story has just one concept: a massive attack by birds on a rural community. Individually, a bird is harmless but in flocks so big that they block out the sky, a new dimension of fear is created.

Hitchcock was a good friend of Du Maurier’s father and he’d already directed Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, two of her better known novels. He did not think much of Jamaica Inn as a story, and while he liked Rebecca he was not allowed a free-hand in the script because of the intervention of David O. Selznick. Luckily for the British director that Selznick did put his foot down as Rebecca won the Oscar for best picture, launching Hitchcock’s career in the US.

By the time he got to make The Birds, Hitchcock could walk on water as far as Hollywood was concerned because he had so many hit films. But he was sniffy about Du Maurier’s 1952 short story, claiming he’d only read it once and at that very quickly. He explained to François Truffaut that after reading a book he’s thinking of turning into a film, he just forgets the book and starts to create cinema.

As long as a story had a hook, he was confident that he could make something from it. Du Maurier’s story is about a poor post-war Cornish family whose cottage suddenly comes under an unexplained attack by birds. It later becomes clear that the whole of Britain is under attack, which some commentators believe was a possible reference to the emergence of the Cold War.

Hitchcock didn’t like the drab setting and swapped Cornwall for California, upgrading the main character from a disabled farm hand to the dashing Rod Taylor. There was only one challenge for Hitchcock and that was to frighten the audience with birds for 90 minutes.

He said his job was to always make the audience suffer as much as possible and that he did in the case of The Birds, using a combination of real birds and models. It should be said that Du Maurier provided plenty of horror in her short story for Hitchcock to feast upon. It didn’t matter why the birds were attacking or whether it was some metaphor. All he was interested in was to exploit our phobias and make us suffer.

The Birds is one of his best known films and I admire it because it is based on a simple what if?  Hitchcock begins the story with the purchase of two love birds and then ratchets up the tension scene by scene. Dare any film maker to remake it. Of course Steven Spielberg did in a way with Jaws, but making a scary movie with gnashing razor sharp teeth is arguably slightly less challenging than doing one about our feathery friends.

So which of his 52 films are my favourite? For me it still remains The 39 Steps, followed by Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Blackmail, Rear Window, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Torn Curtain (like the Wizard of Oz, it grows on you with every viewing), and controversially Topaz. The Leon Uris spy novel, which the latter film was based upon, is a cracker and Hitchcock takes a more conventional approach in his storytelling, something that would have been at odds with him. I have to admit I have a soft spot for the single overhead shot of Karin Dor being shot and her long flowing dress representing the spilling of her blood – the only arty Hitchcockian scene in the film and well worth the wait. It does have three endings, depending on which version you watch. Unfortunately, the critics hated the film and it was a commercial flop.

I’m not sure why the BFI in 2012 voted Vertigo the best film of all time, replacing Citizen Kane. Before going to press, I re-watched Vertigo and still think it excruciatingly slow.

It took the French critics writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-1950s to truly recognise the genius of Hitchcock. His work allowed them to put across their view that it was the director, not the producer, writer or actor, who was the true author of a film. Hitchcock was the perfect example of their theory because he controlled every element of his movies.

So many film makers have played homage to Hitchcock over the decades because of his influence in the language of modern film making.

Every so often the press and film bloggers like to play a game of naming the best half dozen films that look like a Hitchcock film but were not directed by the great master of suspense. So here are my six films that have Hitchcock qualities: Peeping Tom (Michael Powell); Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol); Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg); Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut); Misery (Rob Reiner) and Charade (Stanley Donen).

Whether Hitchcock would have chosen to make any of these films is another question and probably a far more interesting one.

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