“It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a muzzling rain with it … the pallour of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist.”
The opening lines of Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier came as a complete shock. I had packed the book for a Caribbean vacation — erroneously thinking by its title that it would be the perfect tropical beach read — and had begun the novel lounging in full sun with my toes in the sand. I should have known that du Maurier, author of Rebecca, would write no such novel, instead placing her titular inn on the lonely moors of northern England … in late November. Jamaica Inn nonetheless proved to be a gripping thriller that held me spellbound for several days under the summer sun.
Following her mother’s death, Mary Yellan travels across England to live with her aunt and uncle, landlord of the Jamaica Inn. Before she even arrives, however, it becomes apparent that she is moving toward rather unsavory lodgings, and it does not take her long to unpack the furtive secrets concealed in the decaying inn. Unlike the nameless, passive narrator of Rebecca, Mary is a bold, spirited young woman who is determined not to become like her nervous, twitching Aunt Patience and refuses to stay silent in the face of savage corruption. Her drunken, 7-foot-tall Uncle Joss fails to intimidate her into inaction, but the unsought attraction she feels toward his younger brother, Jem, a horse thief who lives across the moors and whom she dares not trust, poses a complication. The only person in whom she can confide is the county’s curate, whose eerie albino presence seems to be her only hope of survival.
The story was supposedly inspired by du Maurier’s experience at the actual Jamaica Inn, located in Bodmin Moor, in 1930. Alfred Hitchcock produced a film adaptation in 1939 starring Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton.
This novel read like a northern English rendition of Treasure Island, full of intrigue, suspense, pirating, love, and murder. Not only is the tale engrossing, but it is beautifully told in du Maurier’s classic descriptive prose, where readers can feel the sharp wind from the moors burn their cheeks and smell the dank rot of the inn. The great irony of the title was certainly not lost on me as “Jamaica” connotes a warm place full of sunshine and relaxation, and “Inn” signifies hospitality and rest. Instead the place is a cold den of robbers plotting destruction at every turn. I may not recommend it for the next trip to the tropics, but it certainly makes for a delicious wintertime thriller!