Craig Russell is intent on exploring the idea of split personalities, or what might make otherwise good people do bad things. In his last novel, The Devil Aspect, set in a European asylum on the eve of World War II, the question was whether it was the devil, or some other malevolent spirit that possessed people and caused them to commit horrific crimes. Given this background, it is no surprise that Russell was drawn to the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In Hyde he manages to riff on that story to deliver a kind of gothic procedural, although one that explores these same issues.
The book opens on a burly Edward Hyde sitting by the ocean with his good friend Stevenson. They are discussing the possibility of split personalities, of a good and evil side to a person that may be unaware of each other. This leads Hyde to tell Stevenson the story that makes up the majority of this book. Edward Hyde, it turns out, is the chief detective in the Edinburgh police force. He is suffering from a mental condition that causes him to have strange visions and to lose time, a condition that he has not revealed to his superiors. After one of these episodes he finds himself in the town of Dean where he is led to the discovery of a hanging body that has been killed “three times”. This is the first of a series of murders and disappearances that are connected to Celtic mythology and Scottish nationalism and will have Hyde questioning his own sanity.
As with The Devil Aspect, Russell effectively deploys his creepy, gothic styling on the story. The ancient city of Edinburgh during the later years of the industrial revolution makes a perfect setting for this type of tale. Locations are dark and candlelit, there is significant poverty and destitution and new development butts up against ancient ritual. Into this mix, Russell drops dark elements of Celtic mythology, stories of devil hounds, doll coffins, a Dark Guild, hanging trees and mysterious standing stones. And on top of this he layers readers’ likely understanding of the basic story of Jekyll and Hyde – of a man who is in fact two men, one peaceful one violent, who have no knowledge of each other, struggling for control of the same body. But this knowledge is also used against the reader to an extent, managing their understanding of the protagonist and potentially diverting their attention away from other clues.
Overall, Hyde is an effective reinvention and explanation of a classic tale for modern times. And it also allows Russell to once again explore a horror trope that he is clearly interested in. Russell pitches this as the inspiration for the classic tale but the only really connection to that tale, the character of Edward Hyde, turns out to be a bit of a bluff. Referential bookends aside, with Hyde Russell has produced a strong, twisty, gothic, standalone historical police procedural with a conflicted protagonist and a strong sense of place that is well worth reading on its own merits.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.