Criminal Classics – Claire McGowan

Claire McGowan is the director of The Crime Writers Association and her rather excellent debut novel The Fall is out now from Headline.

Claire’s Criminal Classic is du Maurier’s Rebecca…

‘Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again’.

One piece of writing ‘advice’ that we often hear is not to start your book with a dream. Yet Daphne du Maurier proved it wrong with this mesmerising opening to Rebecca, her most famous novel. The dream shows us a decaying, destroyed house, before taking us back several years, to when the narrator was an impoverished companion to a rich old lady in the south of France. Swept into a whirlwind marriage with rich and mysterious Max de Winter, she’s soon mistress of Manderley. But she can never escape the shadow of Rebecca – Max’s dead first wife.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what makes Rebecca so special. Like all the great pioneering novels, you feel you might have heard the story before. Along with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is one of the cornerstones of the female psychological thriller. The language is beautiful, painting a picture of the mist-shrouded Cornish landscape. Then there’s the tension when the past comes to light, and the gripping climax of the court case. There’s the brilliant characterisation, often cruelly funny, and terrifyingly vivid in the case of Mrs Danvers, the deranged housekeeper. There’s the intense sympathy we feel for the narrator. We share her misery and embarrassment as she fails to live up to the dead first wife, and we learn the shocking truth at the same time she does. And the stroke of brilliance that means we never know her name. How clever to have a teasing, unsolved mystery, at the very heart of a book that’s as impenetrable as the sea-mists it conjures up.

– Claire McGowan

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

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