Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Guest Post: Joanna Challis on writing about Daphne du Maurier

Joanna Challis's first Daphne du Maurier mystery is Murder on the Cliffs:

The storm led me to Padthaway. I could never resist the allure of dark swirling clouds, windswept leaves sweeping down cobbled lanes or a view of the sea stirring up its defiant nature. The sea possessed a power all of its own and this part of Cornwall, an isolated stretch of rocky cliff tops and unexplored beaches both enchanted and terrified me.

It is not a lie to say I felt drawn out that day, led to a certain destiny...

So begins this new mystery series featuring young Daphne du Maurier, headstrong, adventurous, and standing at the cusp of greatness.

Walking on the cliffs in Cornwall, she stumbles upon the drowned body of a beautiful woman, dressed only in a nightgown, her hair strewn along the rocks, her eyes gazing up to the heavens. Daphne soon learns that the mysterious woman was engaged to marry Lord Hartley of Padthaway, an Elizabethan mansion full of intriguing secrets.

As the daughter of the famous Sir Gerald du Maurier, Daphne is welcomed into the Hartley home, but when the drowning turns out to be murder, Daphne determines to get to the bottom of the mysteries of Padthaway—in part to find fresh inspiration for her writing, and in part because she cannot resist the allure of grand houses and long buried secrets.

Joanna Challis explains the background to her new series:

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley.

The storm led me to Padthaway.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is my all-time favourite book. I also love the black and white movie with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, chillingly transcribed to screen by Alfred Hitchcock. So when my agent first came up with the idea of using Daphne as a fictional heroine, I blinked not once but twice.

I never thought of writing as a real person. The first thing that flashed through my mind was ‘restricted.’ Unlike fictional protagonists, real people and more so real ‘famous’ people left behind a wealth of information.

Daphne du Maurier did more than that. She wrote her own biography Myself When Young charting her early years up to the publication of her first novel and marriage. Daphne is quoted as saying “an autobiography is self-indulgent” and when asked if she planned a sequel to Myself When Young, she replied: “No. I believe one can become too introspective writing this type of thing. I intend to look to the future rather than the past and all I can say is that I had a very happy married life, have a delightful family, and I don’t like books which are full of name dropping.”

Myself When Young – the Shaping of a Writer formed the basis for my fictional Daphne. Although many biographers have stitched together other versions of the real Daphne, none can compare to the horse’s own mouth. In her autobiography, she paints a painfully honest picture of herself, her relationship with her parents and her sisters, her education in Paris, her love for Cornwall and abhorrence for London life, her unrelenting interest in history and her ambition to succeed as a writer. As I devoured Myself When Young, I realized I had a kindred spirit in Daphne. She loved the same things I did: travel, ruins, history, and writing. She often felt socially inept, drawn more to observe people than participate. She loved adventure and intrigue and there were no limits to her imagination.

Of course, I knew when embarking upon a new mystery series featuring Daphne du Maurier, particular criticism would be levelled at me. In creating a fictional Daphne, a heroine starring in her own fictional novel, one providing inspiration for her future works, I had to distance myself from the magnitude of biographers out there who all had a pre-conceived idea of who Daphne was. At the end of the day, nobody knows the real Daphne but Daphne herself and she is no longer here to speak for herself. The legacy of family, friends and her writings are left behind to give us clues and they all paint a fascinating, complex personality, not unlike writers today. Daphne lived in her own world and loved to create worlds. Reading her words, my fictional Daphne-the-heroine leapt off the page and I’m sure if she were alive today, to some extent she would be amused by the thought of becoming an amateur sleuth in the great houses of England.

Sharing Daphne’s deep love of Cornwall, I set Murder on the Cliffs, out this month by St Martin’s Minotaur, on the Cornish coast. Above the waves and the cliffs, a great mansion looms called Padthaway, the home of the aristocratic Hartley family. As Daphne is on holidays, she is drawn to the house and the mystery of the young bride found dead on the beach. She won’t rest until she has unearthed all the secrets of the eerie Elizabethan mansion, even if it places her in danger.

Murder on the Cliffs was written with a large nod to Rebecca, du Maurier’s all-time classic. Padthaway forms the inspiration for Manderley and the young dead bride Victoria to Rebecca. Other than that, Murder on the Cliffs has its own mystery to solve and Daphne is just the one to do it. She’s trusted by the family and this provides the perfect basis for her to subtly begin her inquiries.

Murder on the Cliffs (published by St Martin’s Minotaur) is out 1st December, 2009.

Following on with Daphne’s deep love of Cornwall, Peril at Somner House is next, a Winter manor-house mystery set on the Isles of Scilly (to be published 2010).

For more information, please visit

Thank you Joanna, I look forward to reading Murder on the Cliffs. A competition for a copy of Murder on the Cliffs will be uploaded soon to the Euro Crime website, so check back here often for details.

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