Halfway through The Villa of Death: A Mystery Featuring Daphne du Maurier, I realize the rest of the novel will contain the same repetitive quasi-entertaining fare from cover to cover. A mystery set in 1927 Cornwall, England, it feels more like a Victorian swooner than its more modern cousin. In this author’s conceit, a young Daphne DuMaurier (yes, that Daphne DuMaurier) is attending the elaborate wedding of her friend Ellen Hamilton to Boston millionaire Teddy Grimshaw, the groom considerably older than his new bride. The couple also share a daughter, Charlotte, a product of their romantic liaison before a long parting. Reunited, the couple is ready to begin their lives in a celebration at Hamilton’s sprawling family estate.
As friends and relations gather at the flower-bedecked estate (the dramatic landscape DuMaurier will use for her famous Manderley in her novel Rebecca), the budding author’s heart is all aflutter with an incipient romance of her own with Major Frederick Browning… until he arrives with a fiancée on his arm. Adding more tension to the gathering, Grimshaw’s American relatives descend on the festivities with a vengeance, casting a pall on the celebratory mood—especially the groom’s daughter by his first wife, the petulant Rosalie, who is understandably jealous of her position now that Charlotte will have all of their father’s attention.
When Teddy dies abruptly—nearly in his bride’s arms—there are cries of murder, civilized accommodation soon shattered by this tragic event. The unfolding plot is the grist for Challis’s tale, DuMaurier in the thick of the action, buffeted by grief and worry for her friend, confused about her relationship with Browning and rattled by an anonymous gunman menacing the already-distressed wedding party. Eventually, secrets are revealed—long-buried enmity between relatives, a fortune to be dispersed, a crime to be solved—as well as a few more unexpected post-wedding deaths. As an emissary of Scotland Yard, Major Browning investigates Grimshaw’s death, Daphne thrown into constant contact with the man she loves (who may turn out to be a heartbreaker in disguise).
Vacillating between the real-life drama unfolding around her and the desire to work on the novel taking shape in her imagination, DuMaurier straddles both worlds, one fueling the other. This is distracting fare with a heaping serving of tortured romance, Grimshaw’s death the stage for a predictable conflict of families and loyalties, Daphne playing her role with the wide-eyed innocence seen most commonly in Victorian fiction.
Speaking of innocence, this novel perfectly illustrates the insular nature of wealth and class in an era generations-removed from the modern blight of mass communication, a drama of heroine and manly rescuer (sans the white steed), the damsel yearning for her beloved to validate her existence. Perhaps redundancy is the cause of the novel’s malaise. It’s all been done before, and better, by DuMaurier herself, a story that never needed reinvention or a translator.