His pick is RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island…
Ah, Treasure Island. What a book.
Aptly enough, if called upon to name my desert island read, this would be it. This is a classic novel in the most rudimentary sense: written by a Victorian, never out of print and adapted for the screen umpteen times. Ergo it must be a classic, right?
It doesn’t read like a classic; it’s actually readable. This is because Robert Louis Stevenson knows the value of a good story. Pack it full of incident and suspense and bugger the flowery language and highfalutin themes. We’re here to be entertained and whisked out of our everyday cares, not lectured to about the horrors of poverty, the nihilism of bourgeois intellectuals or the moral superiority of the Russian peasant.
What’s that? You want characters you can get your teeth into? Good point, I almost forgot. There are three reasons Treasure Island is brilliant. You’ll know them already, but in case you forgot here they are:
Name me a better villain in all of English literature. Can’t do it, can you?
Stevenson sets Silver up with great skill, first presenting us with two ugly, monstrous versions of piratehood from our childish nightmares. There’s Billy Bones, the tattooed, facially scarred, violent drunkard who intimidates all and sundry. Then Blind Pew, a twisted scarecrow of a man so frightening that he reduces Billy to the status of the tooth fairy, tracks Billy down and puts the fear of God into him. Well, it’s fear of the black spot actually, but all the same Billy goes and carks it out of sheer terror.
Who are both of these men scared of? A certain one-legged man who turns out to be Long John Silver, tavern owner, erstwhile quartermaster to the infamous – and long since dead – Captain Flint, and soon charismatic ship’s cook on the voyage to treasure island.
As our narrator Jim Hawkins makes plain, Silver does not look like a pirate when compared with Billy Bones or Blind Pew. He’s a warm, ruddy-faced, friendly sort who couldn’t possibly be a criminal.
And then Jim overhears Silver’s plan to mutiny and, shortly after, watches in horror as Silver murders one of the crew by stabbing him in the back in a frenzy. This bit is scarier than anything that went before, because we’ve seen our good friend turn into a murderer before our eyes. A man we trusted, admired even. Him, a pirate?
Stevenson understands how to make his reader shiver and he pours all of that keen insight into Long John Silver. Even at the end of the book, when Silver tells Jim that he would never have betrayed him, we still want to believe. We still like him, despite – or because of – his crimes.
It’s hard for us not to understand his motives either. When faced with such a huge treasure, one that we’d toiled hard to collect through a life of danger and death, what would we do in Silver’s place?
We think of Treasure Island as a kids’ book. That’s no bad thing. What we probably mean is that it’s accessible, exciting and reasonably short. But it’s also full of greed, murder and attempted murder, with a body count of well over a dozen by story’s end.
On top of all that, it’s a great advert for the many virtues of cheese. And really, what higher recommendation can there be for a novel than that?
– Damien Seaman
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.