My First Thriller
By MSW Guest Blogger Karin Salvalaggio
At the age of eleven, I was probably too young to read my first thriller, but Not After Midnight, a short story collection by Daphne du Maurier, had been calling to me from the bookshelf for some time. Like The Exorcist that sat next to it, there was an unspoken warning – it didn’t matter if I was a precocious reader, I wasn’t ready for it. At first I didn’t understand my parent’s reticence. The opening pages of “Don’t Look Now” seemed so innocent. A loving young couple are holidaying in Venice. John and Laura linger over lunch. They gently tease each other and make up stories about the elderly twin spinsters a few tables away. What could be more idyllic?
The author, Daphne du Maurier was a master of her craft. When she turned her formidable talent to writing a psychological thriller she brought the weight of her genius into creating a work of fiction that is so powerful it physically scared you. Set in the confusing labyrinth of canals and dark alleyways that crisscross Venice, this is a story inhabited with compelling characters and a narrative structure that leaves the reader begging for release.
Those of you who haven’t read the story may have seen the movie, which aside from a few details stays very true to its literary source. We quickly learn that things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. John and Laura have recently lost their young daughter to meningitis. One of the spinsters is a clairvoyant and claims their child’s spirit is sitting at the table with John and Laura and that she is happy. While John dismisses this as nonsense, his wife clings to it as a source of great comfort. What follows is a slow unravelling of John’s worldview. At dinner they run into the strange pair again, but this time John is warned that he must leave Venice immediately because he is not safe. They also inform him that he is a psychic as well. That same evening he becomes separated from his wife and sees the strange child roaming the dark canals of Venice for the first time.
The next day Laura flies back to England because their son has fallen ill. As agreed John heads for the mainland so he can travel home by car, but something he sees makes him think his wife is still in Venice. He returns and searches in vain, eventually going to the police when his anxiety has peaked. It is there that he learns that a murderer has been roaming Venice, slitting their victim’s throats. From then on it is only a question of time before John finally meets his fate and like him the reader is powerless to stop it from happening. Even now I am haunted by how John’s need to protect a lost child is ultimately his undoing. It is both heart breaking and horrific.
“Don’t Look Now” may only be a short story, but it’s left a lasting impression on me as a writer, a reader and most surprisingly as a tourist. When writing I try to create the same sort of dramatic tension and always think very carefully about where I set my stories. The maze of Venetian alleyways and canals are not just a sinister backdrop, the setting is the perfect metaphor for how lost the main characters have become in their grief. As a reader, I was immediately drawn to thrillers. Even though they gave me nightmares, I enjoyed the adrenaline rush too much to give them up. As I recall, The Exorcist was the next book I took down from that shelf! Reading “Don’t Look Now” also had unforeseen consequences. I used to be married to a Venetian and have spent a great deal of time visiting the city. It is an eerie place at night and it’s easy to lose your way. Footsteps echo, boats creak on their moorings and bits of conversation float from open windows. After a bachelorette party I became separated from my friends somewhere in the foggy back alleyways of Venice. It took me ages to find my way to Piazza San Marco and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I felt like taking off my high heels and running for it. It was an unforgettable evening for many reasons!
Fans of the genre will probably recall the first time they read a thriller, but do you remember why you loved the book so much? How old were you? Have you ever gone back to read it again? Are you still haunted by a particular character or setting?
From Allison: Thanks for visiting today, Karin! I’ll bet you didn’t know that we have something in common … we were at UC Santa Cruz at the exact same time! Except, I dropped out in 1989 and you graduated … For MSW readers, Library Journal gave BONE DUST WHITE a starred review and marked it “debut of the month,” saying: “The suspense meter spikes dramatically…This complicated, peel-away-layers debut procedural intoxicates from the opening page.”