“Dead Man’s Chest” by Nicholas Rankin

As a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing since childhood and as someone who is fascinated by lighthouse history (RLS came from a long line of rather famous lighthouse engineers) I was delighted to find this book – subtitled “Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson” – on the 501 list. I bought it and set it aside for my summer holidays. I thought reading it on the coast would be appropriate.

Unfortunately, instead of transporting me to the many exotic locales of RLS’s life and work, the book tried to be part modern travelogue and part biography and for me at least, fell between two stools. It left me wishing Rankin had just written a straight biography of RLS and left the descriptions of tropical islands and darkly lit old houses to RLS himself.

Having said that, any fan of RLS’s writing will find lots of great information about the author here. His disbelief in God nearly broke his father, he was closely related to Graham Greene, his 1892 novel “The Wrecker” was one of the first to use a telephone call as an integral part of the plot, and most depressingly for any novelist – he wrote “Treasure Island” at the rate of one chapter per day and it has never been out of print since.

As for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It took a mere six weeks from idea to manuscript delivery and interestingly was written when Carl Jung was 10 and Sigmund Freud was only 29 and barely begun on his life’s work. I was also impressed to discover that Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific (more than 40 islands visited) helped confirm his political opinions. Despite declining health he tried his best, as a then wealthy and well-known writer, to raise their issues back in Europe.

Nicholas Rankin tries in this 352 page book to follow in the footsteps of RLS from birth til death. At times he succeeds in evoking a sense of the world where RLS lived and created. But I think he allows himself as narrator too large a role. I found out too much about his own opinions of people, nations, and customs and the book lacked interviews & contact with those who actually knew RLS or his family. But it’s an honest effort (despite at times simply skipping certain locations because they don’t suit him to visit) and will fascinate any keen reader of RLS’s amazingly varied and prolific writings – three of which are on the 501 List.

(read July 2012)

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Filed under Biography, travel book

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