Thursday, February 18, 2010

He could nowhere discover what to do with a stolen diamond - the adventurous Robert Louis Stevenson

I want to emphasize that Robert Louis Stevenson was a professional writer, a hack, although he lived at some distance from New Grub Street.  A problem this creates for me is that he often wrote with co-authors, including his wife and stepson.  Every collection of Stevenson's stories that I have found omits everything tainted by other hands.  Are RLS's collaborations with Fanny Osborne Stevenson really of less value than his juvenilia?  I have doubts.  Anyway, when I claim to have read "all" of Stevenson's short fiction, there's a caveat.

A true professional, Stevenson matched the stories he wanted to tell with the stories people wanted to read.  His heroes were Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.*  Stevenson wanted to be a popular writer as well as a good one.

As a result, he wrote what we, or some of us, now for some reason call genre fiction.  Ghost stories, murder stories, sentimental Christmas tales (see left, heh heh),** and adventure stories, lots of adventure stories. 

Funny, then, that some of his earliest stories are parodies of adventure fiction and detective fiction.  The seven linked stories of "The Suicide Club" and "The Rajah Diamond" (1878, also found in New Arabian Nights, 1882) hop from character to character and story to story, with plots propelled by wild coincidences and eavesdropping.  Behind everything is the Sherlock Holmes like Prince Florizel of Bohemia, assisted by Dr. Watson, make that Colonel Geraldine.  This Holmes has a Moriarty, too.

All of this is nine years before the first Sherlock Holmes novel, and as Doyle was an avowed fan of Stevenson, it is obvious that the New Arabian Nights stories were among the many progenitors of Holmes and Watson.  Yet it was hard for me to overcome the feeling that Stevenson was parodying Doyle, rather than Émile Gaboriau and his detective M. Lecoq:

On his way home Mr. Rolles purchased a work on precious stones and several of Gaboriau's novels. These last he eagerly skimmed until an advanced hour in the morning; but although they introduced him to many new ideas, he could nowhere discover what to do with a stolen diamond. He was annoyed, moreover, to find the information scattered amongst romantic story-telling, instead of soberly set forth after the manner of a manual; and he concluded that, even if the writer had thought much upon these subjects, he was totally lacking in educational method. For the character and attainments of Lecoq, however, he was unable to contain his admiration.

Well, it's all a little silly, but good fun.  My favorite little trick is the way each story, serialized, as one might guess, fails to end properly:

(At this point, contrary to all the canons of his art, our Arabian author breaks off the STORY OF THE YOUNG MAN IN HOLY ORDERS. I regret and condemn such practices; but I must follow my original, and refer the reader for the conclusion of Mr. Rolles' adventures to the next number of the cycle, the STORY OF THE HOUSE WITH THE GREEN BLINDS.)

And the next story, despite moving to a new, seemingly unrelated, character, does somehow clear up the loose ends.  Very clever.  Not terribly deep, and I'm afraid Florizel and Geraldine won't hook anyone like Holmes and Watson can, but an enjoyable way to watch a young writer mocking conventions while simultaneously learning to use them.

*  And George Meredith, a connection I do not yet understand.  Look at the construction of those sentences in that first quotation, though, those complex-compound sentences.  Is that it?

**  The cover of "The Body Snatcher" (1884) is borrowed from the valuable Robert Louis Stevenson Project.

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