Thursday, September 11, 2014

Death in Venice (and Other Places): Daphne du Maurier's Don't Look Now (2008), edited by Patrick McGrath

"She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we would be in danger if we stayed in Venice...."

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) sometimes seems to get left out of crime fiction studies, not, I surmise, because she is seen as unworthy of the genre--she is a very well-regarded writer--but because she is seen, so the saying goes, as having transcended it.  Yet with several of her novels she produced some of the greatest modern Gothics, the best known of which remains Rebecca (1938). And then there is her short fiction.

Don't Look Now is a collection from the quality imprint New York Review Books of nine du Maurier tales. Several of these works, I would argue, can be classified as crime fiction, including the superb title piece.

The novella "Don't Look Now" (1971) familiar to many, no doubt, from the much-praised 1973 film adaptation with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, is the story of a British couple vacationing in Italy, where they are trying to recover emotionally from the tragic death of their young daughter.

At dinner in a Venice restaurant a blind woman claiming to be clairvoyant (there with her sister) tells the wife that she saw the couple's dead daughter sitting with them.

The wife is inclined to believe this tale, while the husband thinks the sisters are crude crackpots or connivers.  The couple is also informed that they will be great danger if they stay in Venice, but again the husband scoffs.  Is he right to do so, or is there real peril for the grieving pair? Don't look now....

Venice makes such a creepy setting for s suspense story, and du Maurier makes the most of it.  "Don't Look Now" truly is one of the great short form suspense tales in the literature and if you have not yet read it--well, really you should.

If only he could keep them from his eyes.  Nothing else mattered.  He must keep them from his eyes....

The second story, the novelette "The Birds" (1952, filmed in a typically loose adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963), is equally remarkable. Strictly speaking, it is outside this blog's purview, as it is not a crime story, but it is certainly a tale of suspense.

Probably most people here are generally familiar with the plot, wherein birds suddenly begin savagely attacking humans at a rural settlement in Cornwall (Hitchcock shifted the setting to northern California and made the protagonist a wealthy playgirl socialite, inevitably a blonde).

This is one of the most powerfully creepy tales I have ever read, a true masterwork of the storyteller's art.  I am an admirer of the Hitchcock film, but to me it does not attain the sheer elemental terror of du Maurier's original "end-of-the-world" story.

The shorter "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" (1952), which shares some affinity with "Don't Look Now," is another of du Maurier's best-known tales.

As editor Patrick McGrath suggests, this is masterful femme fatale story.  It may not be "hard-boiled," but it definitely packs a punch.

Another tale from the collection that I should mention is "The Blue Lenses" (1959), about a woman recovering in hospital from an eye operation who starts seeing things--people, actually--in a very different light. This is another one of du Maurier's best suspense stories, one about which one must restrain oneself from saying too much!

In Don't Look Now some terrific stories are omitted, such as "The Apple Tree" (1952), "The Old Man" (1952) and "The Alibi" (1959), but this is still a wonderful collection, splendidly produced by New York Review Books, who has made some other fine ventures into crime/suspense genre fiction, which you may see reviewed here in the future.


  1. This is more a general comment about your blog, which I found several months ago and have been enjoying so much! You've reminded me of quite a few of my old favorites, and tipped me off to more that I"d not heard of and the few I can find have been excellent for any number of reasons. Thanks for all your devotion to mysteries!

    I do want to mention something rather odd. In the right-hand column of the blog, below the gallery of Members, everything vibrates, non-stop, on my screen. It is very distracting and I've not seen this on any other web site. Is it deliberate? If not, I wonder what makes it do that?

    Thanks again for your fascinating columns!

  2. Terry, I have that same problem, but only in Google chrome, not Mozilla Firefox. I think it may be related to monitor settings, but it's odd it's particular to this blog! I wonder whether other people are having the problem?

    I'm so glad you like the blog and took the time to comment about it. I do want to provide something people enjoy and find interesting.

  3. I read a fair amount of her stuff in my teens but have rarely gone back (the depressing and crushing comformity of the coda to REBECCA really bothered me at the time, I remember) and I have always thought of DLK and The Birds as being more int he fantasy genre - but you've really made me want to look again, thanks Curt.

    1. Hi Sergio, yeah, I can't make the case for the Birds being "crime fiction," but I couldn't resist talking about it a bit, it's such an amazing story. I would classify it as apocalyptic thriller fiction, one of those end-of-the-world books (mystery writer J. J. Connington wrote a striking one with Nordenholt's Million, though it's in the sci-fi vein too). I think Don't Look Know can be considered crime fiction, though the horror element is strong of course. Feel the same about Kiss Me again, Stranger and The Blue Lenses. But, in any event, she's a magnificent suspense writer. I'm reminded of Roald Dahl's short fiction, those tales of the unexpected.

    2. Interesting comment on Rebecca,by the way, I'm feeling seriously that is one I need to consider some more.

  4. I was a bit underwhelmed by THE BIRDS. Connington's NORDENHOLT'S MILLION is exceptionally interesting and provocative.

    1. I love "The Birds"!

      Connington's book is scary and very definitely provocative. It would make a great film, but might well put people off were it faithful.