Monday, November 23, 2009

Book review: Murder on the Cliffs, by Joanna Challis

When I was a teenager, Gothic novels formed a good part of my pleasure reading. They were the perfect escape, and I devoured them by the boxful. In a typical storyline, an attractive but naive young woman encounters danger and romance when she takes a position at a crumbling old castle or haunted mansion in the English countryside. She fights her attraction to the titled master of the house, a guarded, solitary man whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. I can picture the covers easily: the heroine fleeing in her flimsy nightgown at midnight, her long hair whipping in the wind, a lone candle flickering in the dark mansion behind her...

Although the genre has declined in popularity since, regrettably so, I'm still very fond of Gothics. So when I got word about Joanna Challis's new historical mystery, I knew I had to read it. What longtime fan could resist this cover?

Murder on the Cliffs pays tribute to the genre and one of its modern masters, Daphne du Maurier. At the same time, it puts a twist on many familiar tropes. For example, Challis's resourceful heroine is more than a match, socially and intellectually, for the Hartleys of Padthaway, so she arrives on the scene in a position of power. As the daughter of famed British actor Sir Gerald du Maurier, her name, unlike that of Rebecca's narrator, is not only known but renowned. Because she is who she is, we know she'll survive and thrive. Not everyone is so fortunate, though. It's beautiful Victoria Bastion, former kitchen maid at Padthaway and its master's would-be bride, who is found dead. How did she die, and who killed her?

Twenty-one-year-old Daphne, a devotee of all things historical, comes to remote Cornwall in 1928 seeking adventure and escape from the marriage market. She looks forward to spending her days researching records from Charlemagne's time at a nearby abbey. On one stormy and windswept night, she discovers the body of a beautiful young woman, clad in a nightgown, lying in a deserted cove, and a teenage girl in hysterics beside her. The girl introduces herself as Lianne and tells Daphne that the dead woman was her brother's fiancee.

Lianne brings Daphne back to her home, an grand Elizabethan-era mansion, to break the news to her family. Here Daphne's real adventure begins. Lianne's mother, Lady Hartley, was less than thrilled at seeing her son, Lord David, marry a social inferior with a racy reputation. But even though she had clear motive for wanting Victoria gone, the investigation proceeds slowly. Sir Edward, the local magistrate, seems to buy into the notion of "aristocratic privilege" and delivers a verdict of accidental death. Evidence turns up implying otherwise.

The Hartley household is as eccentric as any Gothic fan could hope for, and secrets from the past hang over all of Padthaway's residents. The mansion comes complete with a grim, overprotective housekeeper, and Lord David's brooding nature, enhanced by his recent bereavement, appeals to Daphne's romantic side. Daphne's privileged background and friendship with Lianne help her get closer to the Hartleys and discover the secrets they're hiding. She also finds inspiration for the novel she hopes to write ...

After the dramatic opening scene, Murder on the Cliffs settles in as a quietly atmospheric mystery that builds in intensity again toward the end. Several obvious questions remain unaddressed for a good long while, but eventually the answers come fast and furious. Upper-class Daphne's haplessness at housework is amusing, and her relationships with other village residents draw out other aspects of her personality. She has a close, teasing relationship with her father, which is glimpsed through correspondence, and relates well to people from all walks of life. The slowly changing social fabric in a small Cornish village in the post-WWI years is especially well presented.

Readers will have different tolerance levels for historical characters as sleuths, since these novels require extra suspension of disbelief. The real Daphne was enchanted by the region's rich heritage and wild, romantic atmosphere, and her fictional counterpart feels similarly. The openness of her fictional voice takes away somewhat from her undoubtedly complex, enigmatic personality. I wondered whether a third-person viewpoint might have conveyed this better, and there were times I wished the protagonist wasn't meant to be a historical figure. The youthful freshness of her narration is appealing, though, and the prose style clear and direct. Perhaps other facets of her character will come through in later books.

Whether or not you buy the idea of Du Maurier as detective, this is good escapist fare with an excellent sense of place and history -- and with plot elements that both adhere to and defy the conventions of the traditional Gothic.

Murder on the Cliffs was published this November by Minotaur at $24.99, hb, 291pp, 978-0-312-36714-5.


  1. I've been intrigued by this book ever since I read a brief interview with the author in RT Book Club. This might be something that I wait and take out of the library instead of buy just to check it out.

  2. I'm very intrigued as well. Waiting for the library copy.....

  3. I read Gothics as a teen as well, so I was pleased to find out about this book and see your good review. Thank you; I'll make a note to look for it when it comes out in paper.

  4. I love Daphne du Maurier, so I will definitely read this book. And given the fact that I practically inhaled the two novels by John Harwood, after you recommended them, I have no doubt I will enjoy this book. Thank you for writing about it.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Yes, I wish there were more Gothic novels out there... if nothing else, many of Du Maurier's own novels are being reprinted (by Sourcebooks). And Chicago Review is reprinting many by Mary Stewart.

    Danja, glad you enjoyed the Harwood novels as well!