“Don’t Look Now” by Daphne du Maurier (1971) is a masterclass in suspense. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since she is also famous for having written “The Birds,” a short story later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, two of her novels were also adapted by Hitchock, and many of her stories have been adapted for film, including the current one.
From the lightning first line through the two-phased build of the protagonist’s deepening anxiety and paranoia, “Don’t Look Now” not only compels the reader’s attention but takes them through an escalating series of emotional peaks where all is not how it seems.
According to Alfred Hitchcock, to create suspense, the audience must know more than the characters. When the audience knows less than the characters, it creates mystery. Du Maurier is a master of using both, as can be gleaned from her famous first line: “‘Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’”
Du Maurier not only makes the threat clear, providing information, but implies the danger has existed for some time. In my experience, the best opening lines not only 1) say things are already going bad but also imply 2) they’re about to get a whole lot worse. Du Maurier’s story promises exactly this, opening in media res. As a result, the reader slides effortlessly into the story, like a subject falling asleep at the snap of a hypnotist.
As the conversation between John and Laura unfolds, it becomes indeterminate if the two older women across from there are really hypnotists or if this is mostly the couple’s imagination. Their shared a joke about being hypnotized seems at first to be just that: a joke to melt the ice in their relationship, which has become frigid since the death of their daughter Christine. Currently vacationing in Italy, they are trying to forget the pain of their loss.
Eventually, the couple becomes convinced that the ladies, one of whom is blind, are really two male thieves who wear drag. Laura heads to the bathroom on her own to see if they’ll change clothes in the stalls. However, when she returns, she says the “most wonderful thing” happened to her: one of the twins told her she knew she had lost a child. In fact, they tell her Christine is laughing happily at their table.
John does not believe this, though he can see how comforted his wife is by this news. Instead, he becomes concerned that the twins are charlatans and have hypnotized his wife in her suggestible state of grief. He warns that they could be out to deceive her for selfish reasons—they could be jewel thieves or even murderers.
They leave the table, but when they finally reach Venice, John learns about a serial killer at loose in the city and, when they get lost in the city’s back alleys, he witnesses a vision of a young girl, leaping from gondola to gondola in one of the canals, while a man cries out after her in the darkness, as if he was trying to kill her. It is an eerie moment, but it passes.
Later, at an out-of-the-way restaurant in Venice, the couple encounters the twins again, much to John’s chagrin. They tell the couple that it is John, not Laura, who bears a certain “rapport” with the unknown, and, furthermore, that they both must leave Venice by tomorrow, or something horrible will happen to John.
This is the last straw. Concerned for his wife’s grief and mounting hysteria, John won’t let these hypnotists, who are probably the murderers he heard about in the news, tell him and his wife what to do. John is determined to continue the vacation regardless. However, later that evening they receive a telegram that their son at boarding school has come down with appendicitis, and they make plans to cut their vacation short to visit him. The prophecy that they will have to leave becomes true.
Their plan is for Laura to take the only available chartered flight directly to England, while John makes his way to Milan before driving back home. They leave Venice as planned, John still bitter about the whole experience. As he says goodbye to Venice, however, he sees his wife returning to the island with the twins and a look of urgent worry.
Horrified that his worst fears were realized, that the twins have manipulated her and convinced her to return to Venice, John cancels his travel plans and searches for her at their hotel. The desk clerk asks him if he really saw his wife on the vaporetto and John says he could swear it in a court of law. However, they are nowhere to be found, even as he gets the police involved in the search for the twins, who he believes kidnapped his wife.
His concern for his wife’s amnesia, suggestibility, and hysteria, soon gives way increasingly to paranoia, underscoring his own slide into hysteria. At the end of his rope, John finally receives a call—from Laura, saying she is safely staying at their friend’s house in England and visiting the hospital where their son is recovering from his surgery, all as planned.
He has imagined a fantastic scenario. He goes to the police station and apologizes to the twins for the enormous misunderstanding and for having wasted the police’s time. He says he must have only imagined them on the vaporetto and that the whole thing was a big mistake.
After all is settled, he leaves, and becomes lost again in the labyrinthine alleys of Venice. He encounters the young girl he saw before, the one who leaps from gondola to gondola while the man screamed after her. Convinced the man is the killer the Venetian police is after, he follows the girl, trying to protect her, and bars a door behind him. However, the girl casts aside her disguise, revealing herself to be a woman with dwarfism who is the real Venetian serial killer.
She takes out a knife. In his last moments, he realizes his vision of Laura returning on the vaporetto for an emergency was really a vision of the future: she will soon return to Venice at the news of his death. “What a bloody silly way to die…” is his last thought as the woman plunges in the knife.
I found the ending a little too “Gotcha!” for my taste, but there’s no denying that it is a surprising yet inevitable result. The reader knows about the killer and knows about John’s ability to see into the “beyond.” What du Maurier does so well is play with reader expectations: the savvy reader, thinking they’re smarter than John, thinks at first that the young girl is John’s deceased child, who he is seeing beyond the veil of death. However, this assumption is revealed to be very incorrect.
Another reason the suspense works so well in this story is the limited point of view. The reader’s reality is John’s reality; the point of view is kept close to his own train of thought. He doesn’t know who the twins are or what their motivation is and neither does the reader. However, he still imagines what the threats might be, creating suspense. Though the scenarios he imagines are alarming and sometimes fantastic, he maintains that he always behaves rationally—even when his very commitment to solving the mysteries he is confronted with contributes to his rising paranoia.
Daphne du Maurier expertly plays with reader expectations in “Don’t Look Now,” crafting a remarkable tale of suspense. Like the best weird fiction, it provides not just a glimpse into the unknown beyond, but uses the techniques of fiction to undermine our assumptions about what is rational.
Next week, I will be reading Robert Aickman’s “The Hospice” (1975).