Robert Louis Stevenson Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,448 words.)