Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Suicide Club (1882)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Suicide Club, London: Chatto & Windus, 1882

The Suicide Club at Goodreads
The Suicide Club at IBList

Rating: 7/10

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The three novelettes that make up Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club are interlinked tales that form a part of his New Arabian Nights project. Along with the second cycle of stories in the first volume of New Arabian Nights, these stories were originally published in London Magazine between June and October of 1878. New Arabian Nights collected tales modeled after the Thousand and One Nights, only here it is the narrator (Stevenson) transcribing tales recounted to him by an "Arabian author." The stories are certainly inspired by the format of the original Arabian Nights, which collects a large number of stories and fragments, some interrelated while others standalone (though this depends on which version is at hand since most translations feature selections from the tales rather than the complete works). Though there are allusions to the past, Stevenson's stories are distinctly wrapped up in Victorian conventions and are an important chapter in the development of the Victorian mystery, and by extension the development of the mystery genre. These works are also important forerunners in the evolution of the modern short story.

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.


Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts
First published in London Magazine, 1878

Seeking adventure, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his friend Colonel Geraldine, enter an oyster bar in disguise. Boredom is soon alleviated with the appearance of a young man offering patrons cream tarts. Some accept the pastries while others decline, and in the cases where the pastries are not accepted, the young man must himself eat the tart. Curious, the two friends seek the young man's acquaintance and take an immediate liking to him. Through this encounter they learn of a Suicide Club, an organization that caters to men wishing to put an end to their lives.

The strongest part of the story is its middle. The opening is certainly original but the logic is at times lacking, whereas the end is plunged into adventure and hinges on some plot conveniences. The middle, however, is well paced and builds itself nicely in revealing the method in which the victim is selected. It also contains the most interesting character of any of the stories, a certain Mr. Malthus.


Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk
First published in London Magazine, 1878

While the previous story's best portion is its second third, the second story's strength is in its third. With somewhat comical tone we are introduced to Silas Q. Scuddamore, a moody American from Bangor, Maine, whose uncertain emotions deliver him into a conniving plot. Silas Scuddamore manages to get wrapped up in having to dispose of a corpse, and due to his sensitive nature, this makes for a strong sequence with a Saratoga trunk.

Interestingly, the title is not entirely accurate in the sense that the story is not about the physician and is clearly not his story. The trunk, however, and more accurately its contents, does play a large role. It should instead be titled "Story of the American and the Saratoga Trunk." Or "Story of the American Tourist and The Bohemian Corpse."


The Adventures of the Hansom Cab
First published in London Magazine, 1878

The final story's best portion is its beginning. In fact, the opening to "The Adventures of the Hansom Cab" is one of the better introductions to any story I have come across for some time. A man is picked up by a cab and brought over to a house where a party is being held. It appears the host has sent several cabs throughout London to find single gentlemen and deliver them to the house. Our curious and brave protagonist attends the party, and hiding behind some curtains (a classic trope), he watches as the host slowly sends guests away on the pretext that their invitation was a misunderstanding. The gentleman's involvement with the remainder of the plot begs the reader to wonder at the need for such a hyperbolic ruse, but the first portion of the story is so strong that we can forgive the rest when it begins to falter.

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword.



4 comments:

Todd Mason said...

FB, I've known of these stories for decades, and never have gotten around to reading them...and we can hardly fault RLS for defaulting to adventure mode, given his career, even if the stories might be better if more sinister.

Thanks for the pointers!

Casual Debris said...

Agreed Todd. Stevenson lives in the shadows of his contemporary latter Victorian giants, though I've always admired his writing. I highly recommend these; the opening to The Hansom Cab alone is worth the read even for non fans.

Yvette said...

Thanks for this intro, I'm not really very familiar with Stevenson's work - except of course for TREASURE ISLAND which we read in school and some of his poetry - but this sounds like the sort of thing I'd enjoy reading. I love the title too, very intriguing.

I've also been meaning to read KIDNAPPED. Maybe I'll order both.

Casual Debris said...

Hi Yvette, I tend to prefer his shorter works over his novels. Of course there's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but the entire Arabian Nights & the rest of the shorts are strong reads. Suicide Club can be found in larger collections, including Arabian Nights.

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