Donald Thomas’s novel Jekyll, Alias Hyde, is described on its title page as “A Variation”. And so it is, in every sense of the world. Donald Thomas re-imagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, The Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from the point of view of the police detective investigating the murder of Sir Danvers Carew, slain by Hyde in Stevenson’s original.
The police officer is Inspector Alfred Swain, who features in several other novels by the same author. He is assisted by the argumentative Sergeant Lumley, and supervised by Superintendant Toplady. The dynamic between the three is quite wonderful, often combative, and occasionally very funny – the passages where the three inter-react would make the book worth reading even if there was no other plot.
For readers who are unfamiliar with Donald Thomas’s non-fiction I’ll just mention that Thomas is a very noted biographer and historian. His account of The Victorian Underworld, has achieved classic status. Thomas knows all there is to know about Victorian crime and society. It shows here, as he presents a Victorian scene you can almost climb into.
In this re-imagining of the original story, Thomas’ detective is already involved in the story before the murder, as he is on familiar terms with the solicitor Utterson, who is Dr Jekyll’s solicitor. Swain also has an infatuation for Utterson’s daughter.
And through this connection we enter the strange world of Dr Jekyll and, eventually, Mr Hyde. Much of Victorian London is portrayed with stunning accuracy, from the miserable slums to the fashionable salons of the West End. And just what is the mysterious connection with the Zulu Wars?
This is, first and foremost, a crime novel. The victim, as in Stevenson’s original, is the politician Sir Danvers Carew. Stevenson never quite explains just why Carew is murdered. But Donald Thomas does, in a particularly convincing plotline. But who else knew why such an apparently harmless man was killed? And how reliable is the only witness?
And just who is Edward Hyde? We think we know, especially if we’re familiar with the original story, but can we be sure?
I don’t ever give spoilers, for this is a book you should seek out for yourself.
Sufficient to say, that Donald Thomas plunges us into a very familiar tale and then turns our expectations upside down with his “Variation”. This very skilful author has written a literary detective story that is first-rate.
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