Friday, February 24, 2017

“The Jekyll Revelation” Is a Clever Take on a Classic Tale

While I’ve been writing about Black Sails, a prequel to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, today I’m posting a review of Robert Masello’s The Jekyll Revelation, a story based on another of Stevenson’s famous tales. 

The Jekyll Revelation is a clever play on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the notorious Jack the Ripper playing the role of Stevenson’s titular villain. And the fact that Stevenson is one of the book’s protagonists only adds to this cunning tale.

The story is a mystery of sorts that unfolds in parallel. One part in the present, and the other in the late nineteenth century. In the present, we’re introduced to Rafael Salazar, a field officer with the Bureau of Land Management in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. I actually grew up right near there, so this part of the book reminded me a ton of my hometown. The mystery, however, concerns an old steamer trunk half submerged in a lake. Among other things, the trunk happens to contain a secret journal written by Robert Louis Stevenson, and soon it’s revealed that the past storyline is actually the contents of the journal Rafael discovers.

There’s a whole lot more to the present storyline, including a romantic subplot and a canyon full of tension between Rafael and the local biker gang. But it is the parallel storyline involving Stevenson that really makes the book. The story begins in Switzerland where Stevenson is seeking an experimental cure for the tuberculosis he suffers from. The clinic is an old mansion tucked away in the Alps that reminded me a lot of the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Stevenson, who is there with his wife and stepson, soon discovers that all is not right at the clinic, and that its famous owner, Dr. RĂ¼edi, is engaging in strange and very dangerous experiments. 

From there, the story moves to London during the time of Jack the Ripper. In an author’s note at the end, Masello states that his inspiration for the book came from the fact that the first murder by Jack the Ripper occurred at a time when the stage play for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was playing in London. In fact, according to Masello, suspicion for the killings even fell on Stevenson for a time. 

The mystery behind Jack the Ripper (who was never captured in real life) drives the second half the book and made it a story I won’t soon forget. And, in a deft bit of storytelling, the mystery of the Ripper even manifests itself in Rafael’s timeline. The most suspenseful and chilling parts, however, play out in Stevenson’s tale. He’s a compelling character, and after 493 pages, I feel like I’ve lived the adventure alongside the famous author. It’s even inspired me to go back and read the one classic of his I never got around to: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

“Black Sails” Takes Artistic License with Blackbeard’s Fate

Well, the events of last week’s episode of Black Sails were unexpected. Yet maybe they shouldn’t have been.

Black Sails is not only wrapping up the prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but also its historical retelling of story of the Pirate Republic of Nassau. Already, Black Sails has tackled the fate of real life pirates such as Charles Vane, Edward Low, and Benjamin Hornigold, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we witnessed Blackbeard’s fate before the series’ end. That said, a good bit of artistic license was taken in the telling.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve never been opposed to the taking of artistic license for the sake of good storytelling. In fact, I’ve written on the subject a number of times (see here and here, for example). In this instance, we saw Woodes Rogers take down Edward Teach, one of the most notorious pirates in history. Though, while the historical Rogers helped bring an end to the pirate republic, he was nowhere near Blackbeard when the famous pirate met his end. 

The historical Blackbeard found his demise at the hands of a British Lieutenant named Robert Maynard, who has never been depicted on the show. Yet the show’s writers did honor the story of how Blackbeard met his fate. After it appeared that Blackbeard had overcome Maynard’s [think Rogers’] sloop with cannon fire, Blackbeard and his men boarded the sloop to find much of its crew dead on the main deck. But Maynard had hidden more than a dozen men in the hull for an ambush. And the rest, shall we say, is history.

A must read for fans of the history behind Black Sails!
The keelhauling scene may have been gratuitous and lacking in historical evidence, though keelhauling was a very real and horrific practice in the golden age of piracy. According to Colin Woodard’s history on the matter, titled The Republic of Pirates (which I’m reading now),citing one historical account: “The final blow came from a Scots highlander who decapitated Blackbeard with a powerful swing of his sword, ‘laying it flat on his shoulder’ attached by a bit of flesh.” Alas, such a mighty Scotsman was absent on Black Sails, but Blackbeard’s fate worked out just fine in the name of good fiction.

* Photo courtesy of Starz.

Friday, February 10, 2017

On “Black Sails,” Israel Hands Adds Another Link to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”

I’ve been travelling the past seven days, so I just caught up on the latest episode of Black Sails. I’ll admit, a grin spread across my face when I realized who had captured Long John Silver.

Silver is the craftiest character on Black Sails, and once again his “silver” tongue saves his bacon after he’s captured by a weathered pirate living among the wreckage of an old ship. The pirate wants to sell Silver to the British, until Silver talks him out of it after recognizing who his captor is – a man who suffered a peculiar injury at the hands of Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard.

That man, Silver concludes, is Israel Hands, and suddenly the entire set up proved once again how brilliantly the show’s writers are sewing together this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Hands is an important character in Treasure Island, but he’s also one of Stevenson’s few characters who was actually a real-life pirate. 

Hands, as the show revealed, was Teach’s second in command. Historically, Hands is known for having been shot (but not killed) by Teach during a fit of rage. Hence that unique scar below his eye on the show (though by historic accounts, the bullet only pierced Hand’s knee). Hands’ notoriety grew tenfold when Stevenson made him one of Long John Silver’s pirates in Treasure Island. So it’s fitting on Black Sails that Silver has turned Hands from his captor to a deadly ally, as his attack on Max’s men proved last Sunday. 

I’ve always wondered if we’d ever see Israel Hands on the show. The emergence of Blackbeard last season suggested we would, but now it’s happened. And the links between Black Sails and Treasure Island only continue to grow.

* Images courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The True Conflict Emerges on “Black Sails”

The final season of Black Sails on Starz looks to be as good as its predecessors, though I was struck by how quickly the fortunes turned for our favorite pirates.

At the end of Season 3, Silver and Flint had pulled off a massacre of Woodes Rogers’ British fleet with the help of Madi’s legion of freed slaves. Meanwhile, they had hidden the chest with the Urca’s treasure, with only Flint, Silver, and Jack Rackham knowing were it’s buried. While in Nassau, Billy Bones stoked the fearsome legend of Long John Silver to cow the rest of the pirates into opposing Rogers and the Brits. 

Yet twenty minutes in the premiere of Season 4, everything goes to hell. The Walrus is destroyed, Flint, Madi, and what remains of their crew are forced to flee in longboats, and Billy’s warning about the ambush that awaited Flint in Nassau somehow never was delivered. By the episode’s end, Silver is left for dead on the beach, and Black Beard is willing to abandon the pirates’ cause so long as Rogers surrenders Eleanor, whom Black Beard blames for the death of Charles Vane. All of which throws a huge wrench in Jack’s and Anne Bonny’s plans to make a new home in reclaimed Nassau.

While I was surprised at how quickly things deteriorated, the episode did a fantastic job of setting up the fundamental conflict that should lead to the series’ end and the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s all about the secret location of the buried Urca treasure. Yes, the same treasure, I believe, that Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawny, and young Jim Hawkins set out to search for in Stevenson’s classic tale.

The conflict emerges in the scene where Billy warns Flint that he’s no longer in charge of the pirates of Nassau:
“I prepared these men to follow Long John Silver upon his return,” Billy tells Flint. “Now if you assume in his absence that role reverts to you, then you assume wrong. See, my men know your name, but you’re not the one that recruited them into this. You weren’t the one that led them into those midnight raids in the western plantations. You weren’t the one who has lived with them, and drank with them, and bled with them. So in the absence of Long John Silver, the men will look to me, not you, for answers to what happens next. And I will be the one to give them those answers. Not you.”
In response, Flint plays the only card he has: “You’re forgetting one thing. Somewhere on an island a few days journey from here is a chest filled with treasure buried in a secret place. And of the three men who know of that place, I may be the last one alive after today.”
That’s when Billy reveals how important that treasure is: “Are you threatening to withhold the location of the chest that every man here has counted upon to provide for Nassau’s treasury once we secure it? Solely so you can maintain your status here?”
Which is exactly what Flint is doing: “There is an unthinkable victory within reach. And I will see this through with whatever means I have at my disposal.”
But that’s when Madi drops a bomb: Silver entrusted her with the treasure’s secret too. And so long as she know this, she vows: “There will be no pirate king here. Of that much, I am certain.”
This fundamental conflict promises to grow throughout the season, and consume most of the main characters before it’s done. After all, Black Sails began as a prequel to Treasure Island, and has slowly been moving toward the beginning of that novel. Somehow, Billy Bones is going to get his hands on that secret. And I won’t be surprised if we see him shuffling up to the common room of The Admiral Benbow before season’s end.

* Images courtesy of Starz and Rotten Tomatoes.