I went across the street and bent over the sleeping woman. The furtive odour of stale wine, worn clothes, rose to my nostrils… suddenly she stirred. She lifted her head. The features were aquiline and proud, the eyes, once large, were now sunken, and the straggling grey hair fell in strands to her shoulders. She must have travelled from some distance, for she had two baskets beside her containing bread and wine, and yet a further woollen shawl. Once again I was seized with that sense of recognition, that link with the past which could not be explained. Even the hand that, warm despite the cold air, held on to mine in gratitude awakened an involuntary, reluctant response. She stared at me. Her lips moved.
I turned, I think I ran.
Armino Fabbio gives some money to the homeless woman in the above passage. When he later hears that she’s been murdered, he is surprised to learn she was once a family servant. He feels compelled to return to his home town of Ruffano where he makes another astonishing discovery. His older brother, Aldo, who he thought died in the war, is alive.
Aldo serves as the director of the university arts council and is in the midst of a stage production on the sinister Duke Claudio (the Falcon), a brutal man who preyed on the Ruffano people five hundred years earlier.
Armino knows his brother is no less brutal than Claudio. His childhood memories of Aldo’s bullying haunt him. He recalls the time Aldo intimidated him into playing Lazarus and locked in a linen cupboard for a tomb:
So great was my dread, so disciplined to his commands my spirit, that I dared not disobey. I came forth, and the horror was that I did not know whether I should meet with the Christ or with the devil, for according to Aldo’s ingenious theory the two were one, and also, in some manner which he never explained, interchangeable.
Armino suspects Aldo is using the students for his own nefarious purposes despite the fact that they see him as an ally.
The book continues to flash between present day and the brothers’ past, The Falcon’s history, the servant’s murder and possible implications it has for Armino plus the hectic university life circa the mid 1960s. The plotlines interweave, building to a couple of unexpected plot revelations and a tragic ending.
Before Du Maurier wrote Falcon, she was criticized for being an "agreeable writer of agreeable fiction" and "nostalgic novelist yearning for the past." Perhaps because of these drubbings, she decided to create a complex, multilayered plot.
In 1965, she appeared to have some doubts about her work, "I’m afraid people are not going to understand it at all." She was right. Good Housekeeping demanded serious revisions before it was serialized in their magazine including a re-write of the ending. Du Maurier considered herself "on the slide" and she agreed to the changes. But in the end, the efforts didn’t pay off. The New Yorker called the novel "extraordinarily dull."
Is the plot a little convoluted? Yes. A little dull? It can be. So why recommend this book? Because, Daphne Du Maurier had a keen ability for creating atmospheric worlds, suspense and that old style of mystery they just don’t craft anymore.
I wouldn’t make this my first Du Maurier read. Her established pieces like Rebecca, The Birds and Other Stories (1963) and Not After Midnight (1971) are a better start. Then, like me, maybe you will become entranced and travel down that back road where The Flight of the Falcon is waiting.
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