Daphne du Maurier’s three mystery novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938), and My Cousin Rachel (1951), are landmarks in the development of the modern gothic romance. Working out of the tradition of the nineteenth century British gothic novel, du Maurier breathed new life into the form through her evocations of the brooding, rugged landscapes of Cornwall and its ancient buildings and mansions. She created a world filled with a rich history of superstitions, danger, and mystery. Manderley, the great house in Rebecca, haunted by the ghostly presence of its dead mistress, and Jamaica Inn, an isolated tavern near the Cornish coast, filled with dark secrets and violence, are so powerfully drawn as to become equal in importance to the characters who inhabit them. The naïve heroines of these two novels must overcome their anxieties and insecurities in the face of physical and psychological threats and penetrate the secrets that surround them before they can achieve final happiness, peace, and love. Du Maurier’s use of setting, her characters, and her plots became models for the countless gothic tales and romances that followed on the publications of these novels.
My Cousin Rachel retains some of the gothic flavor of her earlier works but focuses more on the ambiguous psychology of its heroine. Unlike the typical mystery or detective novel, this book ends with, rather than solves, a mystery: Is Rachel an innocent, misunderstood woman or a sinister, calculating murderer?
In her two famous short stories, “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now,” du Maurier establishes the twentieth century sense of dislocation. These tales of horror show the accepted order of things suddenly and for no apparent reason disintegrating. Her characters find themselves battling for their lives against creatures they have always assumed to be their inferiors: birds and children. The continuity of time itself is in question in “Don’t Look Now,” where du Maurier introduces the startling theme of precognition. Her innovative use of horror in “The Birds” has given rise to a host of stories and films about creatures, ranging from ants to rabbits, that threaten to destroy civilization.