Reviewed by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of reading Joseph Theroux’s The Devil’s Throat or Robert Louis Stevenson, Detective, a novel set in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, starring, if you will, the great Scottish novelist himself, and narrated by his stepson Lloyd Osbourne.
The conceit of the novel is that its author found a partially completed manuscript, written by the above named Osbourne, hidden in the false bottom of an antique chest he bought at auction “several years ago” in Hilo. And maybe it’s true. My abilities to detect artifacts from fact have waned over the years, so I can’t be sure. But either way, it provides a great start to the mystery that the manuscript brings to light; namely that a locally famous artist, a “volcano painter” named Jules Tavernier, is found shot dead in his studio. The murder weapon is missing, and no one knows where to begin in figuring out what happened. The year is 1889, so the forensic sciences are in their infancy, and anyway, the crime scene is soon diluted by local onlookers, visits from the police, and friends of the deceased. Among the first to arrive, before things go too far awry, are Robert Louis Stevenson, a few years away from his death in Samoa, along with a stepson, Lloyd, both of whom feel they owe it to the dead man (and the reader) to solve the crime.
That’s the setup, some external to the action, some internal to it, and both intriguing. There are a lot of culprit candidates; jealous fellow artists, the feared and busy Chinese Tong gang, Lloyd Osbourne’s own brother-in-law, whose pistol is suddenly missing, even the dead man’s wife. What’s more, the newspaper accounts of Tavernier’s death say that it was the result of natural causes. What? Eh?
Early on in the novel Robert Louis Stevenson has to leave the action to fulfill a promise he’s made to visit the famous Father Damien on Molokai at Kalaupapa, Hawaii’s notorious leper colony, so he is taken out of the action, leaving the job of interviewing most of the suspects to his stepson, Lloyd. To tell the truth, I was disappointed to see Stevenson go. His job was to act like Sherlock Holmes, keenly observing slights of hand and slightly-off alibis that no one else has the skill to notice. With so many suspects dancing around the edges of the murder, we need him to help Lloyd eliminate some and bring others to the forefront of their investigation. If I were to pitch the story to Hollywood, in fact, the hook would be “Sherlock Holmes meets Murder on the Orient Express,” so RLS is rather important.
But never mind my disappointment, Lloyd Osbourne does a credible job of winnowing things down on his own, so that when Stevenson does return, some fifty pages later (it’s only a 168-page novel), we don’t feel we have lost as much as I, at least, anticipated. The action of the story continues to heighten until – not to give anything away – in one of the its best scenes, both RLS and Lloyd barely escape the fate of the volcano artist themselves, by leaping into the basket of a hot air balloon and sailing above their would-be assailant in the able hands of an on-the-spot secondary character with the hyper-literary name of Melville… Alas, when RLS asks the obvious question, Melville has to say alas, too, as in ‘alas, no relation.’ Melville appears again in the novel’s penultimate scene and to equally heroic avail.
This is an easy novel to like. Its pace is lively, its chapters are short – the endings of which always seem to entice the reader to get going on the next one – and its only apparent literary ambitions, other than to mark the narrative as a product of its time, is to tell a good tale. Lloyd, as narrator, does a good job of making us suspect whomever he wants us to suspect and like or dislike whoever he wants us to like or dislike – most especially, in the latter category, the diabolical Dr. Edward Cook Webb, whom I, at least, came to hate. But I won’t tell you why. Nor will I tell you what the Devil’s Throat of the title means. For that, you have to read this charming book, about which, what’s most impressive to me, is how it wears its research so lightly. I published a novel last year (it’s why I was asked to write this review) entitled Bob Stevenson, concerning a New York psychiatrist and her patient who believes himself to be Robert Louis Stevenson. So, of course, I had to do some Stevenson research, too. Mine, however – the reading and re-reading of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jykll and Mr. Hyde – cast a very thin shadow compared to the discipline and depth of Mr. Theroux’s. He lists thirteen texts in an afterword, not including the basic Stevenson oeuvre. What’s more, all of the characters in The Devil’s Throat truly lived and worked in Hawaii at the time of the story’s unfolding, and are woven together here in an ingenious and continually interesting webbing.
I do have three quibbles with the book, but only one with the text itself. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife and Lloyd Osbourne’s mother, Fanny, was a decade older than RLS and outlived him by some two more. She does play a role in The Devil’s Throat, but it is a disappointingly minor one. I was curious about her, wanted her voice on the page, wanted a personality behind the presence and, most importantly, a sense of why Stevenson married her. I didn’t get one.
Otherwise, the novel seemed to suffer from inadequate copy-editing. There were times when phrases or words were repeated unintentionally, and there were mistakes in syntax and spelling.
Lastly, we get as front matter a description of Hawaii at the time, a note on Tavernier, a preface concerning the discovered manuscript, and an introduction. I would have preferred most of them as back matter since I wanted to get on with the story.
But I am a fan of this novel, no question. During these days when many good writers are seeing their work languish on various reefs and shoals, it is my hope that The Devil’s Throat will find the wide readership that it and its author (both Osbourne and Theroux) clearly deserve.
Richard Wiley is the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of nine novels, most recently Bob Stevenson, from Bellevue Literary Press. His short story collection, Tacoma Stories, will be out in the fall of 2018.