As a young guide for Sunshine Tours, Armino Fabbio leads a pleasant, if humdrum life — until he becomes circumstantially involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome. The woman, he gradually comes to realise, was his family’s beloved servant many years ago, in his native town of Ruffano. He returns to his birthplace, and once there, finds it is haunted by the phantom of his brother, Aldo, shot down in flames in ’43.
Over five hundred years before, the sinister Duke Claudio, known as The Falcon, lived his twisted, brutal life, preying on the people of Ruffano. But now it is the twentieth century, and the town seems to have forgotten its violent history. But have things really changed? The parallels between the past and present become ever more evident.
The Flight of the Falcon was first published in 1964 and is one of the few novels Du Maurier wrote from a male perspective and set in an Italian city. Ruffano, a fictionalised version of Urbino, is a university town with a ducal palace where Armino Fabbio spent the first few years of life before his mother fled the Germans. Armino has a degree in modern languages and has been working as a tour guide for Sunshine Tours and when a group of his tourists inform him an elderly woman has been abandoned on the steps of a cathedral, he is shocked when he recognises her as his former nurse, Marta. Armino gives her some money but he is even more shocked when she is found murdered the following day. Armino blames himself for the death, believing if he hadn’t given her so much money, she would have been left alone.
Armino decides to head to Ruffano where he visits the ducal palace and reminisces about the time his family lived there. Taking a temporary job at the university library, Armino is amazed to learn people have been disappearing at night and there seems to be a dangerous rivalry brewing between the arts students and the business students. The rivalry is being abetted by the enigmatic Director of Arts who Armino is stunned to discover is the brother he believed was killed during the war. Aldo, a domineering and charismatic man, is in charge of the annual festival and this year he intends to recreate the famous flight of the falcon. Hundreds of years ago, Ruffano was ruled by the insane Duke Claudio who took to the town during the night to punish those he felt had sinned, however the townspeople eventually rose against him and the duke died when he threw himself from the top of the palace tower.
As he is drawn into his brother’s circle, Armino fears Aldo is trying to recreate the events of the riot a little too realistically and grows increasingly concerned when the tensions between the rival faculties intensifies to the point of violence. Aldo seems to be mimicking the behaviour of Duke Claudio and has twelve disciples, all males with abandonment issues, and they are the ones responsible for abducting some of the townspeople in the guise of administering justice. The group have their own set of morals and they perform rituals in costumes from the time of Duke Claudio. As Armino studies the activities of Duke Claudio, it is impossible to ignore the parallel events happening in Ruffano and he starts to question his brother’s motives. Sensing his brother is against him, Aldo arranges for Armino to leave town under the pretence the police want him for Marta’s murder but Armino discovers a dark secret that will change everything forever.
The Flight of the Falcon was an interesting read but not one of my favourites despite the magnificent setting in Ruffano. The town is vividly brought to life and as Armino walks the streets, you really feel like you are there with him amongst the glorious historical buildings. The ancient facades are contrasted by the modernity of the students whizzing about on their motorcycles and the students we met are colourful characters. The atmosphere in Ruffano is guarded almost from the beginning but there is a sense the students are really looking forward to the festival despite the mysterious goings-on during the night. However, as Aldo sows the seeds of dissension between the two rival faculties, the tensions mount and gradually take on a more sinister tone. There are a few unsavoury moments though when the students seem to take great delight in the idea of a spinster woman being raped which they seem to find exceptionally humorous due to her priggish personality. As it turned out, the rape never occurred but the students don’t know that and it is hard to stomach their gleeful reactions.
Of course, the main dynamic is the relationship between Armino and Aldo which has always had an edge to it. Aldo, as the older brother, has always been the domineering one and there are plenty of flashbacks to Armino’s childhood for us to witness the extent of it. Aldo has a magnetic personality which draws people to him but he uses it to his own dubious advantage, while Armino is much more passive and lets others dictate much of his behaviour. Armino falls under his brother’s spell rather quickly and while he senses Aldo is being manipulative, he seems powerless to change things and ends up being drawn in further. It’s hard to sympathise with Armino though because he does nothing to change his situation and doesn’t seem to learn anything.