The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Details

Originally published in 1886.
Also known as: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Blurb

‘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.”’

The Verdict

An unsettling and horrific story which poses interesting ideas about human nature.


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 Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1890
Sherlock Holmes #2
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Also titled The Sign of the Four

I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.

The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.

The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.

Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.

The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.

I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.

As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.

I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.

The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.

I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.

The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.

In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.

In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe
Originally Published 1841
C. Auguste Dupin #1
Followed by The Mystery of the Marie Rogêt

The Murders in the Rue Morgue is less than sixty pages long so why am I devoting an entire post to discussing it? It is because the story is one of the seminal texts in the development of the detective genre, if not the foundational one upon which all others are based.

When I watched the Great Courses lecture series about mystery and suspense fiction at least five or six of the lectures discussed this book. They went into quite some depth, dissecting some of its ideas and construction so I came to it already knowing the solution. This, of course, reduces some of the pleasure of following the case but I think it’s safe to say that regardless of one’s skills at ratiocination, few if any readers could work out its solution for themselves.

The story concerns the grisly murders of a mother and daughter in their Paris home in a locked room on the fourth floor. The mother had her throat cut with a razor and her body was deposited in a yard near their home while the daughter’s corpse is found with a broken neck, stuffed upside down into the chimney.

C. Auguste Dupin decides to investigate the case himself when an acquaintance is accused of the murders. His method is to use the process of ratiocination by which he means the process of unpicking a problem through following a process of observation and making logical deductions.

I think it is important to recognize that Poe intended these stories to be explorations of this process of ratiocination as much as entertainments. They were an intellectual exercise and while few writers today would set out to write tales of ratiocination, this aspect of the story clearly influenced Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. After all, those sequences in which Sherlock lists small details about a person’s appearance and uses them to provide evidence for his observations evoke the idea of ratiocination.

The story begins with the narrator explaining how they made the acquaintance of Dupin and explaining his methods. Once these are established we get a section in which the facts of the case are related similar to in a dossier mystery where we get accounts from a variety of sources. The story concludes with Dupin making a series of statements based on what he sees as the logical conclusions that can be drawn from the various sources.

For the most part the conclusions Dupin reaches are pretty solid although I dispute the interpretation of the clue that relates to a language various witnesses heard spoken. For one thing (taking pains to be as vague as possible here), I find it hard to believe that the witnesses would interpret that information in the way Dupin suggests. Still, I think the deductive process is interesting and I certainly think the explanation given for the murders is as imaginative as it is macabre.

With regards the latter, I should perhaps state that the tone of this story is grisly and horrific. Poe describes the injuries to the two women in detail, painting a very effective picture of the violence of the scene. It is very effective and quite in keeping with Poe’s other works, reading as much as a horrific, penny dreadful-type account than as a detective story.

As with Holmes, Dupin is not a warm person or one to whom the reader is likely to feel close. His brilliance makes him somewhat remote though he forms a firm friendship with a man who will become his biographer. The primary source of interest here is the case and the method by which it will be solved, not the personality of the detective. That being said, I appreciate that he is given something of a personal motivation to look into the murders in addition to the intellectual challenge.

Often when a work is suggested as being an important or landmark one there can be a feeling of disappointment or anticlimax when you actually read it. Happily though I can say that I quite enjoyed the experience of reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is quite dry in places, being a product of the writing style of its period, and I do think it is fair to say that the conclusion reached is unlikely but the process of getting there is clever and interesting enough to make it a worthwhile short read in its own right.

This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

In the Fog by Richard Harding Davis

inthefog
In the Fog
Richard Harding Davis
Originally Published 1901

In the Fog introduces us to The Grill, an incredibly exclusive club in London that has existed since the restoration. Four members who have never met each other before are sat around the dinner table making conversation while a fifth member, Sir Andrew, sits in an armchair absorbed in a mystery novel.

One of the diners points out Sir Andrew and notes that an important vote will be taking place in Parliament that day on the Navy Increase Bill. Sir Andrew’s support is thought to be critical in swaying other members and if he were to make it to the House it would almost certainly result in it passing. Keen to prevent this from happening the diner begins to recount the story of a mysterious event that took place in the thick London fog in the hope of attracting Sir Andrew’s attention long enough for him to miss that vote.

Richard Harding Davis structures his story by splitting it into three sections, each narrated by a different character. When the first narrator finishes his tale, another of the diners steps in to take his place by telling other tales that supposedly relate to that first one. Each time Sir Andrew’s curiosity gets the better of him as he wants to find out the truth about what happened.

This novella is driven by its plot, reading more like an adventure story or thriller than a detective tale, particularly in the second tale. Each of the narrators’ accounts are rich on incident and I did enjoy the way that they each fold back in on the others. Part of the fun is in anticipating how the story might be spun out by someone else and there are a few points in the third tale that are a little unexpected.

The book also contains some wonderfully evocative descriptions of what walking the streets of London in thick fog felt like. That helped me understand better what life was like a hundred years ago and how people could cope with just inches of visibility.

Davis’ characterization on the other hand feels quite slight with little time spent on developing the back stories of any character other than Sir Andrew (who is himself not the most complex of characters). By the time we reach the end of the book we understand a little about characters’ plans and goals in life but we get little sense about their interests beyond their desire to get in his cab. This struck me as a little disappointing and I found that I was wishing that the book were a little longer to give these characters a little more room to shine in that narrative.

In the Fog is often very entertaining and I really enjoyed its sense of wacky energy but looking at it as a mystery story it does have a problem derived from its tone and premise. From the start of the novella we are aware that the three narrators are playing a game and that their stories are fictional. This in no way damages the work as a comedy – in fact, it probably heightens it and elevates an element of the ending – but it means that the mystery element of the book feels a bit anticlimactic.

When viewed primarily as a comic work, In the Fog is quite charming and creative. It moves quickly and I enjoyed each of the three tales though the first is probably the richest and most intriguing. If you like stories in this style then I would certainly recommend taking a look at this – it is a really quick and entertaining story – but just be prepared that there is no puzzle here to solve.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a capital city (Where)

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

scarlet
A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1947
Sherlock Holmes #1
Followed by The Sign of Four

Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.

The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.

They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…

When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.

Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.

What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.

Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.

The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.

On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.

What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.

The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.

Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Adventures
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1892
Sherlock Holmes #3
Preceded by The Sign of Four
Followed by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

This is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

Read more

The Priest’s Hat (Il Cappello del Prete) by Emilio De Marchi, translated by Frederick A. Y. Brown

ThePriestsHat
The Priest’s Hat
Emilio de Marchii
Originally Published 1887

This post will be my the fiftieth review for Mysteries Ahoy! and, to mark the occasion, I knew that I wanted to find something a little bit special.

Being on something of an inverted mystery kick, I have been doing lots of research into the various novels available that belong to that sub-genre. As I read articles, encyclopedia entries and guides, I have been writing down titles that catch my eye but none struck me quite so much as The Priest’s Hat and the moment I found out about it I was quite determined that I would track a copy down for the blog.

The novel was apparently one of the earliest examples of the Italian giallo form which combines elements of horror, mystery and suspense. It was written in 1887 and published in installments before being collected into a volume for publication in 1888.

The story was inspired by the then-recent news stories concerning the Count Faella d’Imola who had killed a priest for his money, been arrested and died in prison. While De Marchi’s characters have different names and some of the circumstances of the crime differ, it is clear that this work certainly uses the details of that case as a starting point to explore the psychology of the criminal leading up to and following a murder.

The murderer in this story is the Baron Carlo Coriolano di Santafusca who, we are told in the first sentence, did not believe in God or the Devil. We discover that he is a libertine who is in dire financial straits, having mortgaged his property and borrowed from his tenants to pay for his gambling habits. At the start of the novel he is seeking to sell his family property in order to service his creditors although he expects that this will still leave him destitute.

The man he seeks to sell the house to is a priest, Cirillo, who has amassed a small fortune. Unfortunately he has also gained a reputation as someone who possesses mystical powers after he advises a group of brigands who have kidnapped him to pick numbers in the lottery that end up being drawn. As this story becomes more widely known, Cirillo finds himself being hounded and is looking to escape his congregation. He also happens to know that the Baron’s home will make a particularly good investment.

The events of the novel depict the process by which the Baron decides that rather than selling his property he will kill Cirillo and steal the money he will be bringing with him for the sale. The actual murder itself is quite brief and takes place early in the novel. Much of what follows shows the Baron, after an initial run of exceptionally good luck, slowly beginning to mentally disintegrate as an investigation begins and the guilt and fear of discovery builds within him.

Unlike many of the other inverted mystery stories I have read, we see very little of the investigation that will take place. Nor are there really a lot of developments in the case, yet we do see how even a small piece of evidence can end up being used as the basis for a much broader case against someone.

That piece of evidence is the titular priest’s hat – an expensive, brand new hat that Cirillo is wearing for his visit to meet with the Baron and conclude the purchase of the house. In one of the Italian language blog entries I read about this novel, the author describes the hat as a sort of tell-tale heart which I think is a particularly appropriate parallel. The idea of the hat becomes an obsession for the Baron who begins to worry that it is the one piece of evidence he has not accounted for.

The way that fear impacts his decision making is interesting and because the case is quite simple, it is easy to see the role the hat plays in the development of the story. While it seemed clear to me how the novel might conclude, I enjoyed the journey to that point and was interested in precisely what decisions the Baron would make.

While the novel’s cast of supporting characters is kept quite small, several are quite striking characters. I found Cirillo’s backstory to be quite entertaining and I enjoyed and appreciated the sections in which we see the local priest puzzling over the dilemma of what to do about an object he has inadvertently stolen.

Arguably the novel does stretch its material a little during the Baron’s later stages of mental anguish (beginning with the chapter The Orgy, which is far less prurient than its title may suggest), feeling a little heavy-handed, but because the time is taken to emphasize the instability of his life prior to his becoming a murderer I felt that erratic behavior seemed to fit his nature.

While I am not sure that the ending was entirely satisfying from the point of view of concluding the investigation, I felt it pulled the work together thematically in its discussion of how the act of murder would affect the guilty party.

Given my recent run of dud reads, I was pleased that the fiftieth review would be of a title that I found to be both interesting and enjoyable. While the book’s age may make it a curiosity for fans of the inverted mystery, I think it is an enjoyable example of the form in its own right.

Sadly the novel is not easily available in print in English though the highly readable Frederick A. Y. Brown translation has been digitized and made available online by the Bodleian. That translation was written in 1935 and so is still presumably in copyright. My hope is that, with the various small crime-specialist presses digging up more and more lost classics of the genre, someday this might be republished and find its way back into wider circulation in English.