Blurb for The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier
As a young Italian courier for Sunshine Tours, Armino Fabbio led a pleasant, if humdrum life—until he became circumstantially involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome, a woman who had suddenly and startlingly reminded Armino of someone in his past.
In a reluctant, compulsive quest for the victim’s identity, Armino returns to his native Ruffano, the town in the hills of Italy that he had left 25 years before as a boy unwillingly caught up in the ebb of the retreating German army.
Once home–and unrecognized–Armino begins to feel that his beloved birthplace is haunted… by the phantom of his adored older brother who had been shot down in flames in ’43, and by the sinister presence of the demoniacal Duke Claudio, who five hundred years before had preyed on the people of Ruffano and become known as The Falcon.
I will be honest and say I was a little thrown off by the way this book began, and I think it was the time period, because I definitely was not expecting it to take place in the “modern” Italy of the 1960s. However, the slight incongruity of the time period soon became enfolded with that vague sense of historical dread that Du Maurier evokes so well, whatever the era.
What begins as a somewhat humorous sequence with Armino acting tour guide to a group of Americans and English, highlighting all their attendant cultural obtuseness and foibles, soon triggers a reverie in which he remembers some menacing episodes from his childhood living in the ducal palace, his father being the caretaker of the historic building. The part his older brother Aldo played in these memories could be perfectly innocent childish domination over a younger sibling, but also carries a somewhat more sinister connotation when coupled with Armino’s reaction, and the way in which his recollection of Aldo is coloured. I love the subtle way in which Du Maurier casts shadows over our perception of Aldo and the role he had in tormenting Armino with the spectre of The Falcon.
The beginning slowly increases tension, Armino’s placid inner life upset by a few events on his routine tour, until finally a murder completely destroys any hope he had of regaining equilibrium. He sets off across the country to his childhood home, hoping to find some answers for the questions he is suddenly forced to ask himself after years of trying to move on from the past.
Initially, his pilgrimmage seems pointless, finding the historical Ruffano he knew changed into a bustling university town, but then, a chance at a temporary job in the university library tempts him to stay. His intention is to lay the ghosts of his past to rest permanently, but instead, he comes face to face with one ghost he never dreamed would rise.
Turns out, he has arrived Ruffano in the middle of its preparations for a festival in honour of the life of Duke Claudio, The Falcon. But as it comes closer, an atmosphere of terror that has been surrounding the ducal palace for a while suddenly begins radiating outward. A chain reaction of horrific events strike prominent citizens in the town and university, mirroring the atrocities committed by Duke Claudio centuries before. Armino gets swept up into the dark intrigue, while the ripples of the murder in Rome slowly catch up with him.
This is an understated, slow burn thriller-mystery novel that Du Maurier balances with all her usual style and aplomb. Written in the first person from a male perspective, I think there was a significant difference in the voice from Du Maurier’s works that are also first person, but from a female perspective, like Rebecca. I think this choice gave the narration some freedom to be a bit more blunt, a bit more unforgiving, while still maintaining the subtlety where the story needed it. I guess that’s a bit of an authorial trick, but as long as we as readers aren’t conscious of hearing the authorial voice come through the narrator, that means they have been given a strong enough character overall.
The other thing that Du Maurier manages to do with this method of narration right from the beginning is subvert the audience expectations in the ending. It is not so much with a twist or a big reveal of a sinister plot, but more of a shift of interpretation about what has been going on all along. Du Maurier perfectly weaves in the flashbacks and memories to lay the groundwork and bear signifcance all along in the story as characters are revealed and shaped by their early formation. But any event could have multiple consequences, and which of them is true for the character is unclear until the end.
Armino in particular is seemingly an unassuming, access character at the beginning, but throughout, his personality is drawn out and defined in various ways that really make him compelling as a protagonist in his own right. Yet, his strong suit is definitely observing, and his perceptions of other characters are nuanced, even if they started off a bit prejudiced or dismissive. It’s something I haven’t seen done very much, or at least done this naturally and well–using a first person narrator to alter the perception of a character through simply having the narrator get to know them better.
The other thing I wasn’t expecting was such a strong, well-communicated sense of Italian identity. Of course, the main character is an Italian in Italy, but the fact that he remembers the aftermath of the war, occupation by German forces, and the humiliation of being a collaborator brings it all to the forefront of your consciousness as you read it. This story is not just set in Italy because “gothic exoticism” but is actually a story in and about Italy during this time period. It couldn’t happen just anywhere to just anyone, and that’s a really great quality for a novel to have–a well-integrated, critical setting.
I really enjoyed reading this one, not least of all because it has a bit of an understated ending that is not what the build-up seems to indicate. If you like an explosive ending with harrowing revelations, murderous betrayals, and a clear villain who literally “dunnit,” then you might just have to lower your expectations or give this one a miss. But if you like tightly strung tension weaving through unfolding revelations like a delicate but deadly flower budding, culminating in a bittersweet, yet somehow inevitable melancholic denouement, then you will definitely enjoy The Flight of the Falcon.
This has been my second Classics Club book review! Check out the rest of my list here.