Robert Louis Stevenson, Jekyll & Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and modern day land management ranger Rafael Salazar; London, a health spa in the Swiss Alps, the Samoan Islands, and Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. If this sounds like an episode of “One of these things is not like the other…” well, you might be right, or maybe you just haven’t read Robert Masello’s The Jekyll Revelation (2016).
I read this as part of my reading challenge–I’m reading my way across the USA, 3-5 (or more) books from each state, with a focus on books where the setting is integral to the story and where we learn something about the people, the history, and/or the geography of the region.
I had this book on my list for California, and it mostly hit the right notes. There are two timelines–one that follows journal entries written by Robert Louis Stevenson himself, and one set in modern day Topanga Canyon following a land management ranger.
The Stevenson parts are set mostly in Europe during the late 1880s, including London in 1888 during the spree of murders which would be attributed to Jack the Ripper, and Masello gives a new theory about the identity of the Ripper. As with so many of the historical novels I read, one of the most interesting things is learning which parts are based on historical fact and which parts came from the author’s imagination. So I was interested to learn that the stage production of Jekyll & Hyde really was closed when suspicion briefly fell on actor Richard Mansfield in the hysteria over the Jack the Ripper murders. I had also been unaware that Stevenson had a stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who co-authored several books with him. Osbourne really was born in California, and returned to the Los Angeles area, where he died in 1947, which provides the link Masello uses to connect the Stevenson parts with the modern day Topanga Canyon sections.
I thought Masello did a pretty good job with the character of Rafael Salazar. He’s an environmental field researcher/ranger for federal land management in Los Angeles County, tracking a small pack of coyotes in the greater LA area. There’s great information about coyotes, and tracking them using the radio collars and triangulation. Masello really sets the sense of place through some of these scenes, and the time as well, through references to the drought.
Piloting his jeep up the old abandoned fire road, Rafael Salazar could see all around him further evidence of the terrible drought that was afflicting not only the Santa Monica Mountains, but all of Southern California. Great plumes of dry soil rose around the tires, enveloping the vehicle in a cloud of dirt and dust as it bounced its way over the rocks and potholes, past the trees with their melancholy branches hanging low, the scraggly chaparral, the withered grasses. As a field officer with the Environmental Science Service, a perpetually underfunded division of the Bureau of Land Management, he had seen the canyon in all kinds of conditions, but he had never seen it this bad.
As Masello notes, it’s an interesting paradox that there exists such a large wilderness area immediately adjacent to such a large urban area in Southern California.
Running along the Pacific Coast and stretching forty miles from the Hollywood Hills to Point Mugu in neighboring Ventura County, the Santa Monica Mountains comprised a wilderness habitat unlike any other abutting a city as large and sprawling as Los Angeles. Canyons cut through the rolling hills and jagged peaks, and tiny towns were nestled here and there, but for the most part these undulating hills and winding gullies were still untouched and untamed, home to thousands of wild creatures, from foxes to raccoons, mule deer to brown bears, rattlesnakes to coyotes.
That juxtaposition was certainly something that surprised me when we moved to Los Angeles–despite the fact that we definitely live in the city, it’s surprisingly easy to get out into the wilderness. My new home has easy access to mountain hiking within walking distance. And, yes, that comes with caveats about needing to be careful about supervising small dogs outside at night and not letting cats out (although I’ve always been an indoor-only proponent when it comes to cats). I’ve even seen spiked vests for small dogs to wear when outside to prevent or discourage coyote predation. (One of my husband’s co-workers recently had a dog bitten by a rattlesnake as well!)
So the novel did a great job of showcasing these wilderness areas. It was interesting to see this comment about darkness in Topanga Canyon–it’s lovely, but I’m not sure how true it really is.
The sky had turned a deep, almost purple, blue in preparation for going black altogether. Nights in the canyon were nothing like nights in Los Angeles, where the ambient glow of the city lights kept everything crepuscular until dawn. Here, the dark meant something.
I haven’t spent the night out in Topanga, and it’s true that the steep canyon walls make the sunrise later, so I guess this is possible. But you can actually see that ambient glow of Los Angeles all the way up in Sequoia National Park, 200+ miles away, so I’m a little skeptical. (Not that Sequoia isn’t dark–I’m just saying Topanga is a heck of a lot closer.) That said, my son and I have noticed how much louder the crickets are in Studio City than they were in west Los Angeles, about 7 miles from where we were, so even a short distance can make a big difference.
And I was impressed with Masello’s character development, at least with Salazar–there’s more to him than the ranger job, and the additions aren’t just throwaway comments, they’re really fleshed out. But for my discussion of setting, I’m going to focus on the ranger side. There were some great little comments about various environmental issues in California throughout these sections:
Because of the rising temperatures of the Sacramento River water, the smelt had all but gone extinct in California. For Rafe, that was an issue that struck closer to home, and she was dead right about it. The Chinook salmon were hanging on by a thread, too. … Sitting on the banks, he’d watched the bodies of the dead fish floating by, belly up, and wondered just how many bears were going to go hungry up north now, and what other repercussions, less obvious but just as destructive, would follow.
And, tidbits about the coyotes as well:
The drought had changed everything. Coyotes were territorial, and under normal conditions, with an abundant supply of food and water, a pack like this could stake out a fairly small area and stick to it, finding everything they’d need within its parameters; in California’s verdant coastal range, that meant they could usually make do with an area comprising one to three square miles. But in these parched conditions, they might have to roam over as much as fifteen square miles in search of adequate resources. Omnivores of the first order, coyotes could—and would—eat anything from nuts and berries to rodents and insects, along with carrion they came across in the course of their extensive travels.
Odd little bits and pieces like this one about the sharkskin book cover seemed slightly forced but were cool information:
“What is that stuff?” the firefighter said, running one finger over the finely mottled surface. The book had no title printed on its cover, and was made of a pale-green skin. “Shagreen.” “Sha-what?” “Shagreen,” Rafe said. “Sharkskin. The little bumps are calcified papillae.” Now he looked even more puzzled. “Scales,” Rafe explained. “They’re placoid scales, probably from a baby shark.” Part of his training as an environmental scientist had been spent at the aquarium in Monterey.
But there were also a few bits that didn’t quite mesh or make sense. Like when the modern day characters are going through the travel trunk. They come across a top hat that pops open–which was a great concept for traveling, by the way–but in order for it to still pop open like that after well over a hundred years, it would have to be bone dry. Yet they just dragged this trunk out of a pond. It seems a bit of a stretch that it would have been that watertight for that length of time. They also find a “pale pink cravat–once no doubt scarlet,” but it wouldn’t have been exposed to sunlight while in the trunk–would it really have faded like that? And the one that really made me shake my head–while going through this trunk, one of the characters comments that, “Any currency that old will be worthless by now.” Ummmm… seriously? I mean, I know these guys are not supposed to be too smart, but is there anyone who really thinks that currency from the 1800s is going to be worthless? I doubt it.
Oh, and coyote young are always “pups,” not “cubs.” I was so surprised when Masello/Salazar used the word “cubs” that I had to check, but my instinct was correct. They are canines, therefore “pups.” This was an odd error to make…
There was enough that was right about the book and descriptions that I was able to mostly overlook stuff like this however. There was the inclusion of Stevenson’s real life friend William Henley, with his wooden leg, who was the basis (at least physically) for the character of Long John Silver and the author of Invictus; Dr. Joseph Lister, who advocated washing hands before medical procedures (and who actually was involved in Henley’s amputation–see the Invictus link above); Bram Stoker (author of Dracula) makes an appearance as well, in a historically appropriate way; the casual inclusion of the simile, “as matter-of-fact as a cobbler turning a shoe on the lathe,” which had me briefly scouring the internet for pictures of a cobbler’s lathe because I was confused by the use of the word “lathe”; the incorporation of several popular stories about Stevenson’s life, death and works in a way that preserves them while leaving their veracity still vague. There were also several comments made by Fanny, Stevenson’s wife, that really marked her as American, without being “rude American” type comments:
‘Back in Sacramento, I had the best garden in town. So many tomatoes that we had to make ketchup out of most of them.’ Surveying the sky, which was already clouding over again, she said, ‘But to grow tomatoes, you need sun, and in London, sunshine is sorely lacking.’
Overall, this was a decent book, and a decent choice for my reading challenge, despite the multiple settings–the California parts were worth the inclusion on my list for California, and the historical bits were worth the less-than-stellar plot and the occasional holes. Just a couple more California vibes, then we’re moving on.