Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca is beloved by mystery fans for its timeless style and haunting story. What a delight it is to find that author Joanna Challis does it justice when she uses a young DuMaurier as the protagonist for her suspense novel, Murder on the Cliffs.
Young Daphne is enjoying what should be a pleasant but uneventful vacation in Cornwall when she stumbles upon the body of a young woman on a beach. At first suspected to be an accidental drowning, it soon becomes clear that Victoria Bastion was the victim of murder and suspects, as well as opinions, abound. Victoria was engaged to Lord David Hartley, the male heir to the powerful and mysterious Hartley dynasty. While Lord David seems grief-stricken, many find it hard to believe that he really fell in love with Victoria, who was a lower-level employee of the family. David’s mother certainly sheds no tears for the girl of humble beginnings and immediately sets about pitching Daphne as a suitable bride for her son. The forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Trehearn, is as cold and conniving as any version of Mrs. Danvers the reader could imagine, and young Lianne Hartley’s personality is as changeable as the ocean wind.
Daphne, as enamored of mysteries as she is of mansions and old manuscripts, recognizes the makings of a novel and determines immediately to ‘assist’ with the investigation of Victoria’s murder. Wise beyond her years, she trusts no one completely and is careful to keep an open mind about the gossip and the gossipers. Despite her objectivity, Daphne quickly grows close to most of the suspects, so no matter how much she wants justice for Victoria, Daphne herself will take no great joy in the end.
Much of du Maurier’s background is put to good use in Murder on the Cliffs. Challis draws on the du Maurier family and their colorful background as well as building a wholly unique novel that evokesRebecca without duplicating it. When she encounters a character whose name she doesn’t know, Daphne wonders, “Could one write a whole book without naming the heroine…” Moments like that spring up throughout the book, and Rebecca fans certainly will enjoy the way Challis makes it seem as if she read du Maurier’s mind as the classic novel was unfolding there.
Challis has her own style, though, and her book is every bit as intriguing as du Maurier’s. She has taken the standard gothic suspense characters and rounded them out beautifully. Each of the key characters comes alive, displaying their own personality traits, both good and bad. Even the minor players are made whole through dialog and descriptions, giving the story a robustness that is often lacking in the genre.
The first in what must surely be a series, Murder on the Cliffs is a gift to those of us who savor the books of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Susanna Kearsley. It takes that ‘something extra’ to make a cozy mystery stand out from the crowd, and Challis certainly has the magic touch.