Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1448
Probably the best known of Robert Louis Stevenson’s mature works is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It has, in Western culture, somewhat the stature of a number of other supernatural tales with archetypal plots, such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Readers unfamiliar with the novel, or even Stevenson’s authorship of it, can still recount in fairly accurate detail the lineaments of the plot. The work’s tremendous popularity undoubtedly has much to do with the aspects of action, character, and setting that now characterize so many mystery and detective novels.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Mr. Hyde’s notorious crimes include trampling an innocent little girl in the street and leaving her to suffer unaided, bludgeoning to death an old man of considerable reputation, supposedly blackmailing the kindly benefactor Dr. Jekyll, and committing a variety of unnameable sins against propriety and morality, the likes of which were best left to the Victorian imagination. Stevenson’s Hyde is as dark a character as any who ever stalked the streets of London, and his outward appearance creates disgust wherever he goes. No one could fault The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for a lack of incident. In describing action, Stevenson is evocative, not explicit. His writing is reminiscent of the somewhat abstract style of Henry James in his psychological thriller The Turn of the Screw (1898). That is not really surprising, because the two men had a deep respect for each other’s work.
Although there is no detective per se in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there is the lawyer Mr. Utterson, whose curiosity, aroused by the strange stipulations of Dr. Jekyll’s will, prompts him to attempt to solve the mystery of Mr. Hyde. Stevenson believed that the reader is most contented when he thoroughly identifies with the characters in a story. It is impossible not to empathize with the rational, but rather pedestrian, Mr. Utterson as he wrestles with a reality too bizarre for him to comprehend. Mr. Utterson serves the essential function, so ably executed by Dr. Watson throughout the Sherlock Homes series, of providing a defective intelligence who moves the story forward, while always keeping the suspense at a nearly unbearable pitch. This thrusting of ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances has also become a mainstay of the modern mystery and detective genre.
Stevenson’s skill in explicating psychological motivation is so strong that the reader even finds himself forcibly identifying with Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego, or doppelgänger, Mr. Hyde. It is a well-known hallmark of later mystery fiction to find something noble, or at least exceptional, in the criminal mind, but it was still a novelty in 1886. Writers of the late twentieth century have asked, quite frequently, as Peter Shaffer does in his psychological mystery play Equus (pr. 1973), which is more to be admired—a banal normalcy or an exhilarating and unique madness. (Victorians were more likely to see the answer to this question as obvious.)
Although Stevenson was a tremendous Romantic in terms of plot and character, he had a rare gift for the realistic rendering of setting. Just as later mystery writers are scrupulous about forensic detail, Stevenson was a passionate observer and recorder of nature and cityscapes. He even put forth the paradoxical idea, in an essay entitled “The Enjoyment of Unpleasant Place,” that given enough time, all settings, even the most inhospitable, could yield a measure of understanding and contentment. A good example of Stevenson’s style and attention...
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to salient detail is this short description of the back entrance to Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory:The door, which was equipped with neither bell nor knocker, was blistered and distained. Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop on the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages.
Any number of Stevenson’s other works can also be studied as precursors to the mystery and detective genre, because even while he might be working within the rubric of the boys’ adventure story or the gothic tale, his fundamental interest in vigorous action, strong character delineation, and detailed settings creates the kind of suspense one associates with mystery and detective fiction.
For example, Treasure Island is full of adventure, which in another setting might be called crime. There are shootings, stabbings, and treachery enough for even the most lurid-minded reader. With the shipwrecks, the malaria, and the harshness of the elements, a tale full of incident emerges. There is also no dearth of mystery: What is the meaning of the black spot? Who is the mysterious blind man? Where is Treasure Island? How do the men aboard the Hispaniola find the liquor to get drunk? Who is the “man of the island”? What eventually becomes of Long John Silver?
Long John Silver, the opportunistic but charming pirate, is one of Stevenson’s most captivating rogues. Perfectly motivated by enlightened self-interest, his shifts of loyalty almost inevitably move the plot. One identifies with him as surely as one identifies with the spry, touchingly adolescent protagonist. As for setting, one does not even need the supplied treasure map to amble competently, though mentally, around the island. Yet attention must be paid, because without a strong sense of place the mysteries of the island would remain inexplicable.
In Treasure Island, as in most of his other works, Stevenson is unusually modern in giving away the ending of the story at the outset, so that the focus of the reader’s suspense is not specifically on the denouement but on the nature of the events leading up to it. The reader knows, for example, from the first page, that Jim Hawkins will survive and attain the hidden treasure, because Hawkins is clearly retelling the tale of Treasure Island from the vantage of his secure future. The reader also knows in the short story “Markheim” that Markheim is the man who murdered the antique dealer, although the reader is encouraged to be curious about why he committed the murder. In both cases Stevenson maintains suspense, not around the questions of whether the treasure will be found or whether Markheim is the killer but around the questions of how the treasure will be found and at what human cost and why Markheim kills the antique dealer and at what spiritual price. This preoccupation with process and psychology, rather than brute facts, is a characteristic of much modern mystery and detective writing, as can be seen quite clearly in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
Stevenson’s works, like those of Edgar Allan Poe, were often dismissed and undervalued in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Certainly Treasure Island suffers if compared with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), “Markheim” may well seem a poor thing next to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), and “Olalla” pales beside Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla.” Yet to have written works that bear comparison with all these classics is by no means a small accomplishment. Such has been the plight of many writers in the mystery and detective genre, to have been the beloved of the common reader during their lives and to have their work criticized by academics after their deaths.
“A Lodging for the Night”
Any reader who wants to assure himself of Stevenson’s excellent style has only to read a passage of his description, such as this view of Notre Dame on a winter’s night in Paris from Stevenson’s first published story, “A Lodging for the Night”:High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles had been transformed into great false noses, drooping towards the point. The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side. In the intervals of the wind, there was a dull sound of dripping about the precincts of the church.
There is no question that this is a setting that cries out for a mystery, not for a garden party.
Stevenson’s “shilling shockers” and boys’ adventures clearly boast intricate and eventful plots, psychologically authentic characterizations, and powerfully observed and conveyed settings. Clearly, Stevenson’s fiction was an important precedent to work carried on in the twentieth century by other popular and talented writers in the mystery/detective genre.