2.20.2014

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

Jamaica Inn
In the great opening chapter of Jamaica Inn, Daphne du Maurier introduces us to Mary Yellan and the Cornish moors. Mary has just lost her mother and is leaving her beloved valley to live with her aunt at Jamaica Inn, halfway between the towns of Bodmin and Lauceston. As the coach draws nearer, she learns from her fellow travelers that the Inn has a terrible reputation. No one stops there anymore. In fact, they try to dissuade Mary from going there. Rain falls and wind howls outside the couch. Du Maurier draws the landscape so well that I could easily picture the gray moors and rocky tors. By the time Mary arrives at the Inn, I felt almost as trepidation as she did.

Jamaica Inn is owned by Joss Merlyn, Mary's uncle by marriage. He's a blustering, violent man who has terrified Mary's aunt Patience into a shadow of her former self. Joss warns Mary not to ask questions and tells her to curb her curiosity. Of course, our stubborn heroine does nothing of the sort because the inn is almost deserted most of the time. The rooms aren't made up for visitors. One room is locked and barred entirely. The inn only sees business on weekends and only from the roughest men in the country. Late one night, Mary hears Joss and a few of his friends outside the inn. They've got wagons that they hurriedly unload, load with some other cargo, and scatter. Later, Mary overhears Joss and his gang talking about a new plan. When one member objects, he is murdered. Mary doesn't witness the murder itself, but she find the hanging rope before Joss can hide it.

The actual Jamaica Inn, built around 1750.
Mary wants no part of any of this, but her aunt's nervous condition holds her in place. Until she can find a way to break Patience free of Joss, Mary refuses to leave. She's in no danger from Joss as the man seems to respect her for standing up to him. Joss only respects strength. He's obsequious to those above him, but brutal to anyone he thinks is weaker. I was astonished by the sympathy in du Maurier's portrayal of the man. When Joss drinks, he talks, and we learn about his terrible childhood and the guilt he feels at his crimes. His brother, Jem, confirms what Joss says about their parents. Mary feels more disgust for Joss than sympathy, but Joss is purely villainous. In fact, by the end of the book, we learn that Joss is not the gang's leader. There's someone else pulling the strings.

While all of this is going on, Mary is attracted by Joss's younger brother, Jem. Their first meeting is not auspicious. If I had been Mary, I would have punched Jem in the nose. He's irritating and makes bad choices, but there's something about him that strikes sparks with Mary. She also meets the vicar of Altarnun, a nearby village. Frances Davey is an albino and, while he seems like an ally, there's something about his coldness that puts Mary off.

You'll never get a chance to catch your breath while reading Jamaica Inn. The action just steams past. Just as Mary learns that Joss is a smuggler, she learns that he's also a wrecker. The local squire gets involved. There's news that the British military will get involved. The walls are closing in around Joss. And then there's the mysterious mastermind. The unusual ending is the perfect note to cap it all off.

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