This week is Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali who shares a birthday with the author today. It’s always a wonderful event so do check out the posts!
I’m a bit consumed with Novella a Day in May at the moment, but Ali said you can participate in DDMReadingWeek with a short story, which was very tempting. I was so impressed when I read the NYRB Classics short story collection Don’t Look Now for DDMReadingWeek back in 2019, and I have the Virago collection The Breaking Point in my TBR (luckily they only have one story in common, The Blue Lenses). The Alibi is the first story in the Virago collection.
The story opens with James Fenton and his wife Edna taking their usual Sunday stroll along Albert Embankment. A picture of middle-class contentment, but you know that this being du Maurier, anything remotely safe and familiar is about to be undermined.
And it is. Passing a nanny “pushing a pram containing identical twins with round faces like Dutch cheeses”, his wife mentions arranging dinner with their friends, and among all this domesticity Fenton suddenly feels entirely disassociated. He could kill someone.
“‘They don’t know,’ he thought, ‘those people inside, how one gesture of mine, now, at this minute, might alter their world. A knock on the door, and someone answers – a woman yawning, an old man in carpet slippers, a child sent by its parents in irritation; and according to what I will, what I decide, their whole future will be decided. Faces smashed in. Sudden murder. Theft. Fire.’ It was as simple as that.”
He decides he will murder someone entirely at random. In order to undertake his nefarious plan, he takes a room in a seedy flat, sublet by Madame Kaufman, a woman worn down by life, living with her small son Johnnie.
To justify his taking of the room he claims to be a painter, and goes as far as buying canvases and oils. At this point, his plan starts to go awry…
Everything that I love about du Maurier was in this story. The creepily destabilising of the familiar; the resolute ordinariness of evil; the sense that anything could happen and that whatever it is would be horribly believable. There was also some humour in the portrayal of the deeply unpleasant James Fenton:
“If there was one thing he could not stand it was a woman who argued, a woman who was self-assertive, a woman who nagged, a woman who stood upon her rights. Because of course they were not made for that. They were intended by their Creator to be pliable, and accommodating, and gentle, and meek. The trouble was that they were so seldom like that in reality.”
The end of the story completely reframed all that had gone before – du Maurier is certainly a writer that keeps her readers on their toes.
I’m really looking forward to finishing the collection once I’ve stopped consuming novellas at quite such a rapid rate. Many thanks Ali, for hosting this wonderful event, and a very happy birthday to you!