Daphne du Maurier (1907 - 1989) was not yet 30 when her fifth book and fourth novel JAMAICA INN was published in 1936.
JAMAICA INN, like Stevenson's TREASURE ISLAND and Greene's THIS GUN FOR HIRE counts as a "thriller." Any thriller at first blush seems all about action. Its hero or heroine begins in a dangerous situation isolated from every obvious source of help.Think of Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON.
In the case of JAMAICA INN 23-year old twice-orphaned Cornwall, England farm girl Mary Yellan has recently lost her mother after years of declining health. Her mother's dying wish was that Mary move to another Cornish town 40 or 50 miles to the East and live in that town with her mother's older sister Patience and her ten years husband Joss Meryln. From a letter, Patience learns after her mother dies that Patience and Joss have moved 12 miles outside town to a bleak moor where her husband now owns and runs Jamaica Inn. Mary is welcome to come but must work hard in the inn's bar and otherwise for her keep.
Mary takes a coach to the inn, finds that her 6'10" uncle abuses his wife, is a terrible alcoholic and seems to lead a gang of more than 100 smugglers. Later she learns that that gang also are "wreckers." That is, they lure ships to destruction on the rocks, steal cargo and slay all survivors who manage to make their way to shore. Everyone within 40 miles suspects Joss as the ringleader but can prove nothing. Joss has an unmarried handsome younger brother Jem who lives alone in the old family home a few miles away and makes his living stealing horses, disguising them and selling them for profit. The novel's action takes place almost entirely in November-December of some year vaguely in the early 19th Century.
Action is abundant and fast-moving. In the end drunken Joss leads his band in a spontaneous, unprepared for (possibly "unauthorized") sinking of a ship on Christmas Eve. Mary is an unwilling, bound and gagged spectator. In the meanwhile Mary has reluctantly voiced her suspicions of her uncle Joss both to his brother Jem and to an infrequently appearing Anglican priest Francis Davey, Vicar of Altarnun, a few miles from Jamaica Inn. The Vicar is an albino, weird in appearance and behavior but kind to and empathetic with Mary Yellan.
Mary begins to suspect that her uncle Joss is too much the slave of drink and otherwise uncontrolled to be the mastermind behind the smuggling and wrecking. Who might he be? With good reason she suspects Jem Merlyn, also a local squire from whom Joss had acquired the inn through trickery. She even has her growing doubts about Vicar Davey. Much of the suspense of JAMAICA INN involves the question: is there an evil master brain, a Sherlock Holmes's Professor Moriarty if you like, behind the smuggling, wrecking and murdering -- or not? If so, who?
So much for the thriller and JAMAICA INN is one grand thriller.
There are several other features of JAMAICA INN that make it an extraordinarily good read.
Let me name only two:
-- the narrator's viewpoint
-- and man/woman mating relations.
The narrator is third person, unnamed. The viewpoint is not omniscient, godlike. We never experience anything except what heroine Mary Yellan experiences, either directly or in speech with others. This heightens the sense that Mary may be a brave, tough country girl who will fight hard for herself and for her poor aunt Patience, but she is all alone and facing increasingly hostile forces with very little understanding of what is going on or help from anyone else.
Man-woman relationships are things that Daphne du Maurier brooded on throughout her life. As far back as Daphne remembered, she had wanted to be a boy, because boys had all the adventures. She really thought she would change into a male when she reached adulthood, till puberty made her accept her femaleness. She spent much time quizzing female staff in her parents' home about their amours and ways of life. She speculated that a girl's ideal mate must be simultaneously father, brother, son, cousin and companion. She wondered why otherwise sensible women married men who would abuse them one way or another and yet could count on their wives to fight fiercely for their abusive mates when the latter were in trouble.
All this Daphne du Maurier autobiography is also very much embedded in JAMAICA INN. Her evil uncle Josh Merlyn finds much to admire in Mary's way of standing up to him: "They ought to have made you a boy" (Ch. 8).
Mary Yellan, against her better judgment, slowly falls in love with dark, handsome Jem Meryln. Growing up in her village, Mary had seen couples attracted to each other and marry. Within a year they were screaming at each other. At times Jem too wishes that spunky Mary were a boy and they could simply be chums roaming England together. At other times Jem wouldn't mind bedding Mary. She obliquely admits that she likes him but wants nothing to do with Jem. He climbs through her window one night to warn her of trouble coming for his brother (who has locked Mary in her room). She rebuffs both Jem's wooing and his advice to avoid danger. Some day, Jem predicts, cautious Mary will settle down with a sober farmer or village tradesman and ejnoy her neighbors. "Don't tell them that you lived once at Jamaica Inn and had love made to you by a horse thief" (Ch. 13).
At novel's end comes the answer: will she or will she not go with Jem on Jem's terms? It is a close call. Maybe du Maurier will leave the question unanswered. Here is some of the talk before the big decision:
"Do you love me, Mary?"
"I believe so, Jem."
"Why are you sitting here beside me?"
"Because I want to; because I must; because ... this is where I belong to be," said Mary.
It is very hard to find fault with JAMAICA INN. A map of the area would be a welcome addition to the brilliant text. And these Cornish country folk speak a rather more elevated English than their real life counterparts might have done. Otherwise this is an unusually fine book.
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