Originally published in 1886.
Also known as: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’
Today’s review is likely to be a shorter one which is perhaps appropriate for a story that some may question being included on this blog at all. Certainly were it not for the Detective Club reissue I would probably never have thought to look at this through the lens of detective fiction. Even now I still would primarily describe it as a work of horror or sensation fiction, though I can see how it can be read as a work of detective fiction.
Part of the reason that I think I view the book that way is that its secret is so widely known and a big part of pop culture. Many subsequent books and movies have evoked its key idea, some times as pastiche, others in outright parody, so that it has become as widely known as the iconic secret spilled in The Empire Strikes Back or perhaps the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express. In other words, even if it could once have been read as a mystery I think most people who come to it will already know the answers.
For those who know absolutely nothing about the book, and knowing that many blurbs purposefully avoid describing the plot, let me give you the very basics of the starting premise. A lawyer learns of the crimes of the brutish Edward Hyde and is puzzled by the hold he seems to have on his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll. This prompts him to investigate the matter more directly.
I am not sure when I first learned the secret of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it was certainly long before I had ever actually encountered a copy of the book. As such I cannot really speak to how effective its core mystery is – I came to it already familiar with its secrets. This, it turns out, is not an entirely bad thing as there is still plenty to admire here from the philosophical questions the narrative poses to Stevenson’s quite wonderfully weighty prose and the clever structure of the piece.
The book’s comparative brevity means that it can be read in a single sitting and unlike some other works of the period, it moves at a decent pace and the meaning of the language used is generally clear even when a particular word or phrase is unfamiliar or archaic. Accordingly the book can feel quite modern in some aspects, especially when you consider the psychological themes it explores. While its language may be Victoran, the attitudes and ideas feel more in keeping with the psychological crime fiction of the early-to-mid twentieth century.
As much as I enjoyed the novella, I do have to acknowledge that if viewed purely as a mystery there are some elements here that will frustrate. While I think the explanation given for the strange events is wonderful and bizarre, it does not fit into the usual rules detective fiction plays by.
Viewed alongside the equally macabre and horrific events of a (relatively) contemporary work, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, the events depicted here do not feel much more far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that the reader of this story may well get closer to the solution by themselves by a process of logical deduction, even if they cannot deduce the whole of it. Still, where that story seeks to root itself in something purporting to be reality, this story chooses to embrace the fantastical.
For those looking for a pure genre read I would suggest that you are best avoiding this but for everyone else I would suggest that this is at least worthy of a look, particularly if you are one of the few who does not already know its secrets (and if you don’t, make sure you avoid reading most blurbs or the Goodreads page). Its brevity means it really is not much of a time commitment and I do think it does play with some interesting ideas.
The Verdict: An unsettling and horrific story which poses interesting ideas about human nature.
2 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson”
Good idea to feature this classic, Aidan. Have you seen the old black and white movie starring Spencer Tracy? Very Gothic and somewhat arch, yet also very dramatic. And Hyde, played by Tracy, is really creepy. Overall, impressive piece of movie making, in my non expert opinion.
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I may have done – I remember watching a black and white version when studying this in school – but it has been so long I remember nothing about it beyond thinking it good. I need to dig out a copy and see if it brings back memories!