Robert Louis Stevenson must be seen as an unknowing progenitor of the mystery and detective genre. He was essentially a Romantic writer attempting to be taken seriously in a mainstream literary world caught up in the values of realism and naturalism. As a Romantic writer, he strongly affirmed the preeminent right of incident to capture the reader’s attention. He countered Jane Austen’s polite cup of tea with Dr. Jekyll’s fantastic potion; he left the discreet parsonage to others, while he explored the mysteries of Treasure Island; he eschewed the chronicling of petty domestic strife and struck out instead to write about, not the uneventful daily life of ordinary men, but rather their extraordinary daydreams, hopes, and fears.
Stevenson also insisted on the importance of setting to a narrative. As he writes in “A Gossip on Romance,” “Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder.” The creation of atmosphere has been an important element in mystery fiction since Edgar Allan Poe first had his amateur French sleuth Monsieur Dupin investigate the murders in the Rue Morgue. The rugged Spanish Sierras of Stevenson’s “Olalla” are, in their own way, as unforgettable as the Baker Street lodgings of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Stevenson also had a profound interest in psychology. His emphasis on the criminal’s motivation, rather than on his identity, clearly presages the method of much modern, post-Freudian, mystery-suspense fiction. In Stevenson’s “Markheim,” the reader witnesses a murder early in the story and has no doubt about the identity of the murderer; the interest lies in the murderer’s motivation, in his emotional and intellectual response to his crime. In terms of plotting, setting, and characterization, Stevenson is a master of all the elements that became so important to the development of the mystery and detective genre.