08 June 2017

Review: The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson

Hardcover, 251 pages
Published 1925 (originally 1885)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson
Written in collaboration with Mrs. Stevenson
     "Do you then propose, dear boy, that we should turn detectives?" inquired Challoner.
     "Do I propose it? No sir," cried Somerset. "It is reason, destiny, the plain face of the world, that commands and imposes it. Here all our merits tell; our manners, habit of the world, powers of conversation, vast stores of unconnected knowledge, all that we are and have builds up the character of the complete detective. It is, in short, the only profession for a gentleman." (8)
Three purposeless gentlemen of the kind one encounters in Victorian novels decide to become detectives: this turns out to be a flimsy pretext upon which to hang a series of short stories by the Stevensons. Each of the fellows goes on an adventure, and within his adventure, someone usually tells him a story, so this gives you an overall frame story, then three of what we might call sub-frame stories, and then three more embedded tales. The stories are diverse, but definitely depict a late-Victorian fascination with racial mixing (as in "The Story of the Fair Cuban") and Mormons (as in "The Story of the Destroying Angel"; just two years later, A. Conan Doyle would do almost the same thing in A Study in Scarlet). And it all comes together in a tale of terrorism-- which I think Stevenson might have been a little ahead in his time on, since most of the examples I can recall of terrorism literature are from the 1890s.

I liked the basic conceit of this book, but unfortunately the detectives are pretty dull and so are most of the adventures they get into. The embedded narratives are sometimes better ("The Story of the Destroying Angel" is tense) and sometimes worse. I did especially like Zero, the evil dynamiter, who uses a lot of the justifications I recognize as traditional, like you may call me indiscriminate, but war is indiscriminate! Or this speech: "We agree that humanity is the object, the glorious triumph of humanity; and being pledged to labour for that end, and face to face with the banded opposition of kings, parliaments, churches, and members of the force, who am I—who are we, dear sir—to affect a nicety about the tools employed?" (143-44) The Stevensons keeps Zero comic, which elevates him over similar characters from other books. I mean, he's obviously an out-and-out villain in an over-the-top fashion, but you have to love a guy who says the government is evil for using "hirelings," whereas terrorist groups nobly and generously provide their members with stipends (147). Completely different, of course! He's a scientist, but a shitty one (dynamiting is difficult because chemicals are as fickle as women!), and he's told off in the end: "You are ignorant of anything but science, which I can never regard as being truly knowledge; I, sir, have studied life" (236).

There's also some stuff about a prince in disguise? That stuff was so boring my eyes glazed right over it all. So, not exactly a great book or even a good one, but it had some good jokes and some okay insight into the cultural brew of the 1880s.

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