About the Book
By chance, John and Jean – one English, the other French – meet in a provincial railway station. Their resemblance to each other is uncanny, and they spend the next few hours talking and drinking – until at last John falls into a drunken stupor. It’s to be his last carefree moment, for when he wakes, Jean has stolen his identity and disappeared. So the Englishman steps into the Frenchman’s shoes, and faces a variety of perplexing roles – as owner of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a fractious family, and master of nothing.
Format: Hardcover (368 pages) Publisher: Victor Gollancz
Publication date: 1957 Genre: Mystery
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The Scapegoat is the book I chose to read for Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted once again by Ali at Heavenali. Taking place between the 10th and the 16th May 2021, Daphne du Maurier Reading Week is timed to coincide with what would have been Daphne du Maurier’s birthday on the 13th May.
Many authors have been inspired by the literary possibilities of the doppelgänger (or double) including Alexandre Dumas in The Man in the Iron Mask, Mark Twain in The Prince and the Pauper, and Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. A more recent example to make use of the narrative opportunities afforded by identical twins is The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea. Reading The Scapegoat, I was also struck by its timely nature, living as we do in an age of identity theft and online scams.
At first sight, Jean du Gué appears to have everything that John lacks. Jean does not, as John does, inhabit ‘a solitary book-lined apartment, he did not wake every morning to the knowledge of no family, no ties, no entanglements, no friends or interests infinitely precious to him, nothing to serve as goal and anchor save a preoccupation with French history and the French language’. Instead Jean possesses a beautiful chateau, has an attractive wife and loving daughter. No entanglements? Well, that’s a different matter.
However, not everything is sweetness and light. The chief cause of concern is the precarious financial position of the family’s glass foundry. (Incidentally, I wondered if the author’s choice of this as the family business was influenced by her own heritage, related in fictional form in her novel, The Glass-Blowers.) And it’s not long before other tensions simmering beneath the surface of the extended family become apparent. There is a saying ‘out of the mouths of babes’ and the innocent observations of Jean’s daughter, Marie-Noel, get uncomfortably close to the heart of those tensions on a number of occasions.
Willing suspension of disbelief is needed on the part of the reader at the notion John could take Jean’s place without his true identity being detected, even by Jean’s mother. However, John’s clever deductions using the clues at his disposal and the unthinking acceptance of the household allow him to get away with it, even enjoy it at times. Although Marie-Noel instinctively senses a difference in the Papa who has returned home from a trip to Paris, it’s the reaction of the family dog, Cesar, that comes closest to giving him away. Actually, there is something else but I’ll leave you to find out what that is for yourself.
Initially, John experiences a sense of freedom in adopting the identity of Monsieur le Comte, wearing his clothes, driving his car, living a life for which no one can call him to account. However, that gradually changes as he finds himself drawn into the life of the family. Their unquestioning acceptance makes him feel strangely unsettled. As he reflects, ‘The fact that they were unconscious victims of a practical joke was no longer funny’. John finds himself making decisions about the family and the business that, although kindly meant, will have unforseen consequences.
As well as the suspense of waiting to see whether John will be found out, the reader may find themselves wondering what Jean might have been getting up to while John has taken his place. All I will say is, have patience.
Whether writing historical fiction, romance or mystery, a common denominator of Daphne du Maurier’s books is high quality writing. For example, I loved this description of the sound of cathedral bells. ‘Tonight the bells rang like a challenge, loud and compelling… Then the clanging softened to a murmur and the murmur to a sigh, and the sigh to a reproach.’
Forget the Cornish romance of Jamaica Inn or Rebecca, The Scapegoat is much more in the territory of her most well-known short story, The Birds. If the ending didn’t quite live up to my expectations, the rest of the story certainly did.
In three words: Suspenseful, dark, compelling
Try something similar: The Other You by J.S. Monroe
About the Author
Daphne du Maurier was born in London, the daughter of the famous actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier. Educated at home and later in Paris, she began writing short stories and articles in 1928, and in 1931 her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published. Rebecca made her one of the most popular authors of her day. Many of her bestselling novels became award-winning films. She lived most of her life in Cornwall, the setting for many of her books. She died in 1989.