As soon as I heard about Joanna Challis’ murder mystery series, which features Daphne du Maurier as an amateur detective, my interest was piqued. I just had to get my hands on the first book, Murder on the Cliffs and I feel that it ties in marvellously with my du Maurier December project.
Before I purchased Murder on the Cliffs, I decided to take a look at a handful of reviews, merely to see how the book was received. I hadn’t heard anything about the novel before, and was interested in the opinions which readers had of it. The available reviews – online, at least – are incredibly varied, and I understand that not a large percentage of readers actually enjoyed the book. I wanted to read it regardless, however, as I find the general idea most intriguing. This book in particular – the first of three in the du Maurier mystery series – is said to give ‘fictional life to the inspiration behind Daphne du Maurier’s classic Rebecca‘.
The premise of Murder on the Cliffs has clearly been well thought out: ‘Young Daphne du Maurier is headstrong, adventurous and standing on the cusp of greatness’. The novel takes place in 1928, where twenty one-year-old Daphne, walking along a Cornish beach, finds the ‘drowned body of a beautiful woman, dressed only in a nightgown, her hair strewn along the rocks, her eyes gazing up to the heavens’. She quickly decides to conduct her own murder investigation: ‘My interest in people, potential characters, and their motivations demanded I at least try; what had I to lose?’
The beginning of the novel immediately sets the scene and tone of the whole: ‘The storm led me to Padthaway. I could never resist the allure of dark swirling clouds, windswept leaves sweeping down cobbled lanes, or a view of the sea, its defiant nature stirred up. The sea possessed a power all its own, and this part of Cornwall, an isolated stretch of rocky cliff tops and unexplored beaches, both enchanted and terrified me’.
Rather charmingly, I think, Australian author Joanna Challis makes a yearly pilgrimage to Manderley. She clearly cares about the way in which she has portrayed her subject. I really like the way in which she has fictionalised Daphne as her protagonist; her personality comes across as well as it does in du Maurier’s own non-fiction. The use of Daphne’s first person perspective heightens the sense of realism throughout. Challis also makes use of nature throughout her novel, and often personifies it in powerful ways: for example, the ‘snarling’ sea is given a sinister character of its own, the morning sun ‘waltzed’ across the sky, and a ‘crumbling stone tower crawled up the cliff at one end’ with ‘its ivy cloak bleeding into the house’.
An interesting mixture of characters has been used within Murder on the Cliffs. Many of those who had such an impact on du Maurier in real life – her father and sisters, for example – are merely alluded to, and the majority of the other protagonists and villagers have been entirely fictionalised. Daphne is staying in the village of Windemere with her mother’s old nanny, Ewe Sinclair, a self-confessed gossip who spends a lot of her time talking to her young charge about the case. This allows Challis to show both their speculations, and the things which Daphne discovers, alongside the official investigation; both unfold side by side. This is a simple plot device, but an eminently clever one to use in such a novel.
Murder on the Cliffs is an absorbing novel. The only issue which I had with the book were a few awkward uses of dialogue; either it did not fit with the character in question, or it was too modern. This did not detract from the story in any great way, however, nor did it lessen my enjoyment of the book. Challis has blended fact and fiction wonderfully, and whilst I did guess the denouement before it occurred, I still found Murder on the Cliffs a most enjoyable read. I will happily carry on with the rest of the du Maurier Mystery Series.