Profound Duplicity

Paul Doiron here—

As a reader, I am always curious to learn about authors and their literary influences. I’d be interested to hear from my fellow Maine Crime Writers about novels that had a profound impact on their own writing.

I’ll go first. One of my childhood favorites is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s both a perfectly plotted work of art and a seminal book in the history of crime literature. (Stephen King rightly called it “a masterpiece of concision.”) I once taught a class at Emerson College called “The Divided Self,” and this passage was one I highlighted for my students:

Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.

It’s not just that Henry Jekyll leads a divided existence between uprightness and degradation, it’s that he knowingly and eagerly chooses to do so. That choice leads him to create the potion that precipitates Edward Hyde.

When it comes to explaining why humans act violently, contemporary culture tends to discount the concept of agency for other motivations (e.g. addiction, mental illness). But I believe that moments of conscious choice lie at the center of the best crime stories. All mysteries are driven by deception, but the great ones acknowledge that the decision to commit a duplicitous act comes “de profundis”—from the depths of our beings. Catholics like me call this “sin” and embody it in the story of Lucifer’s rebellion against heaven.

In Stevenson’s book, Henry Jekyll believes he can escape his own culpability by creating an alter ego free of moral compunctions. Even at the end he still clings tightly to that self-delusion But we, the readers, should recognize that Jekyll was in fact always Hyde. This unflinching assessment makes the doctor’s plight no less tragic, but it also makes him unforgivable.


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4 Responses to Profound Duplicity

  1. Pj Schott says:

    The devil made me do it.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    I don’t know about “profound” impacts, Paul, but when I started the Thea Kozak series, I gave Thea two “literary godparents”–Sara Paretsky and Dick Francis–because of the way they created characters and revealed them to their readers. I wanted Thea to grow up as a strong, no-nonsense feminist like V.I., and I wanted people to be decent and brave and unselfaware, like those in the early Dick Francis books. I’ve found her godparents served her well. My “bad guys” tend to be pretty ordinary folk, and the question I address, over and over, is what happened in their lives to make them go off the rails, to let them give themselves permission to abandon the social contract we all have with each other. That’s why I think the best mysteries are not just whodunnits but whydunnits.

    For understanding the evil that men (and women) do, whether calculated, sociopathic or banal, I tend to turn to nonfiction sources. John Douglas has been a great teacher, and I read a lot of “cop” biographies to get insight into training, experience, and life on the street. One of the most interesting discoveries I’ve made is how important it is to understand our characters’ psychology, and for that, I turn to people in the real world–psychiatrists, social workers, and school psychologists. And my handy-dandy copy of Practical Homicide Investigation.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    My influences in mystery took a fairly normal course from Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie to Dorothy Sayers and then onward to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. I gave this rather straightforward answer to the question about “literary influences” on a conference panel recently. Everyone else on the panel then answered with a variation of ‘the voices in my head,” which to me is the answer to a different question altogether.

    I do like the notion of “choice” and a character standing on the precipice of a choice to do something so anti-social and so outside the norm. And of course, the ripple of that choice through all our other characters is often what makes the story.

  4. Paul Doiron says:

    I guess one of the things that still intrigues me about Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is that the book isn’t about what most people think it’s about. The story has entered the popular imagination as that tale of a good man who takes a potion, and it transforms him into a bad man. But what it’s really about is a bad man who wants to get away with being bad and invents a potion that gives him a foolproof disguise (and absolves him of guilt). I find the actual story so much more interesting than the Cliff’s Notes version.

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