The Flight of the Falcon was the penultimate book which I chose to read for my du Maurier December project. First published in 1965, the novel is set in the fictional city of Ruffano in Italy, which was inspired by a real city, but contains a plot and characters of du Maurier’s own creation.
The Flight of the Falcon begins in the twentieth century, in an Italian city with an incredibly violent history. The face of Ruffano is being modernised, around the focal point of its university. In present-day Ruffano, ‘Austerity was banished. The young, with all their fine contempt for dusty ways, had taken over’. The town has rather a sinister edge to it; there are those who follow students around at night, and a secretive society within the wider university organisation. A student named Caterina tells our narrator the following: ‘But I’m sure of one thing. I would never walk about Ruffano by night without at least half-a-dozen others. It’s all right round here, and in the piazza della Vita. Not up the hill, not by the palace’. Parallels are drawn ‘through murder, humiliation and outrage’ from the very beginning between the present day and the story of Duke Claudio, the Falcon, who lived five hundred years before.
The narrator of the piece, Armino Fabbio – known as Beo – currently works for Sunshine Tours, and describes himself as a courier; a ‘guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls… A courier can make or break a tour. Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old’. The novel’s first main plot point comes when the body of a woman is discovered with a stab wound. Those on the tour with Beo had seen her the previous evening, passed out drunk on a bench. It turns out that she and Beo share a past connection, and Beo then has to deal with the fragmented memories of his childhood which become interspersed with his present: ‘I stood watching my grip, a wanderer between two worlds. The one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent. The dead should not return. Lazarus was right to feel foreboding. Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb – but in vain’.
The most interesting element of the plot comes when Beo, who returns to Ruffano and is employed as a temporary librarian, stumbles across a book which details the past of the city’s infamous Falcon, Claudio Malebranche: ‘A youth of outstanding promise, he became intoxicated by good fortune, and casting off his early discipline he surrounded himself by a small band of dissolute disciples, and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties. No one could walk by night for fear of the Falcon’s sudden descent into the city, when, aided by his followers, he would seize and ravage…’. The present and past stories converge through the guise of the town’s annual festival, entitled ‘The Flight of the Falcon’.
The elements of crime novel within The Flight of the Falcon tend to become glossed over after a while, and are not quite built up enough to keep the reader guessing. Beo’s first person male narrative voice is believable, but it does not feel as compelling or as well built as those in books such as My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand. I could have quite happily put The Flight of the Falcon down at any point and not picked it up again; I did not feel as though I particularly had – or even wanted – to know what was going to happen within its pages. I did not feel an ounce of compassion on behalf of the narrator, even when he was descriving some of the sadder things which had happened to him, and there was a relatively detached air to the whole.
At first, The Flight of the Falcon is a relatively easy novel to get into, but the pace is rather slow and it does tend to become bogged down in details from time to time. The dialogue is sodden with mundane and superfluous details. It did not feel as though du Maurier was perhaps as comfortable with her setting as she is with those books which take place in the United Kingdom and in France. I had the feeling throughout that something pivotal was missing from the novel.