As Mary’s mother lies on her deathbed, she makes her daughter promise to go to live with her aunt as she is the only family they have left. Mary, without any means of supporting herself and no husband, agrees it is the best solution and sets off on her journey.
Mary remembers Aunt Patience as a vibrant, loving woman so she is looking forward to seeing her again, however as Mary nears Jamaica Inn, she begins to receive ominous warnings about the place and her trepidations increase. Mary arrives at the inn in the middle of the night during a storm, and all her fears are confirmed when she meets her boor of an uncle and sees the dramatic change in her aunt who is a timid shadow of her former self. Aunt Patience is obviously terrified of her husband but more afraid Mary will incur his wrath.
Joss Merlyn is a foul-tempered man who will stop at nothing to keep his illegal activities a secret but he also knows Mary isn’t stupid and warns her to stay in her room no matter what she hears or sees. Despite her fears, Mary’s curiosity gets the better of her and she is soon roaming the dark halls, spying on her uncle, and learns he is a smuggler. Mary is determined to see her uncle brought to justice and to protect her aunt, but she has no real understanding of just how much danger she is in as her uncle is guilty of far more than smuggling.
Daphne du Maurier was inspired to write Jamaica Inn after staying at the real Jamaica Inn and hearing the colourful tales of its smuggling past. The real star of this novel is the highly charged atmosphere that du Maurier manages to create which means the tension never quite dissipates as Mary doesn’t know who to trust. Du Maurier is so good at presenting her characters in such a doubtful light, we are never quite sure whether we should trust them or not and Mary certainly ends up placing her trust in the wrong people, mainly down to her preconceived notions.
Regardless, Mary is a feisty character who does stand up to her uncle, and others who threaten her, even when she is afraid for her life, but her curiosity does get her into a lot of precarious situations and her decisions often leave a lot to be desired. Mary also has a love interest, in her uncle’s younger brother, Jem Merlyn, but she is initially wary of him as his reputation as a horse thief precedes him. I wouldn’t say there was a great deal of chemistry between the two and Mary seems to fall in love with him rather quickly but this isn’t a love story so there isn’t much development in the relationship.
The story builds to a satisfying climax as the secrets of Jamaica Inn begin to unravel and malicious deeds are exposed to the cost of more than one life.