Edinburgh's 'Jekyll and Hyde' nature explored in Craig Russell's gripping new novel
Craig Russell's atmospheric Edinburgh-set thriller, Hyde, was revealed as the winner of the 2021 McIlvanney Prize at this year's Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival at the weekend. Presenting the award, judge and crime critic Ayo Onatade described the novel as "a fantastic book with a gothic background that draws you in and brings the reader back to the Scottish origins of Jekyll and Hyde’s creator, Robert Louis Stevenson. A dark tale that was a delight and a thoroughly entertaining read."In January, Evening News Entertainment Editor Liam Rudden spoke to the author about his latest novel.
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That Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a book about Edinburgh, the light and dark aspects of the character a reflection of the Capital's dual personality, is a theory held by many, including Craig Russell, author of Hyde, a gripping new thriller set here and inspired by Stevenson's much loved tale.
Originally from Dunfermline, the 64-year-old now lives in Perthshire but is no stranger to the Capital, "I can just remember when you would get the ferry from Fife to the other side and Edinburgh was the place you went for a meal out or to socialise," he says, recalling that one of his earliest jobs was working in an ad agency in the city.
He continues, "Edinburgh has undergone a real change of personality since the Seventies and Eighties. At the time I was very much aware, and this goes tight to the heart of Hyde, of Edinburgh as a city with a very divided personality; back then it would have been very unionist in one way yet fiercely Scottish in another.
“That is something that extends back through history and it has always been my thesis, and it's a commonly held view, that Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde is set in London but is actually about Edinburgh; the New Town/Old Town divide of personality, the British/Scottish divide of personality, and the class divide, which was stronger in Edinburgh than elsewhere."
Exploring that duality is what led the award-winning author to write his latest novel. "This is what drives so much of my fiction," he explains, "we forget that we are a product of history and forget that our attitudes today come from things that predate us and of which we probably haven't learned."
In Hyde, Russell introduces readers to Edward Hyde, a captain of police in Victorian Edinburgh and a man with a strange gift - or is it a curse - that he keeps secret from all but his physician. Hyde experiences two realities, one real, the other a dreamworld state brought on by a neurological condition. When murders in the city echo the ancient Celtic threefold death ritual, Hyde must hunt those responsible, becoming entangled in a web of occultism and dark scheming by powerful figures along the way.
It's a story that shares little in common with its more famous namesake.
"What I dreaded seeing was the strap-line, 'A retelling of a classic story...' because it is more than that. In the language of the Marvel universe it’s an origins story more than anything else. Not the origins of the character himself, but of the inspiration of the character. I never intended to tackle the subject matter in the same way as Stevenson, I just wanted to explore Scottish identity, who I am and the society that shaped me. So I had a lot of reasons to write this book as well as my love of the tale – it was a labour of love and a book I wrote for myself."
Surprisingly, he admits setting the action in the Capital proved more of a challenge than he had imagined.
"As an east coast boy I know Edinburgh well. Oddly enough, because my knowledge was so intimate, it made it more of a challenge to write about. I had to divest myself of my personal history with the Edinburgh and deconstruct its history to discover why it is the city it is as well as discovering Edinburgh as it was towards the end of the 19th Century. It was a really strange journey. By the end of it, I understood more about Edinburgh that I could have by just looking at its history.”
He reflects, "Scottish identity has certainly evolved. In the Seventies it was about not being English, now there’s a new confidence about being Scottish and the divided personality of the city has healed.”
On the page, Russell describes his leading man’s features as 'brutal, harsh... provoking revulsion’. As well as this, he has a form of epilepsy, which transports him to a dreamlike state during which his body acts autonomously. If the author doesn't make it easy for his hero, he certainly paints vivid pictures of those dreamlike interludes, and there's a reason for that, Russell is drawing on his own experiences living with the condition Alice In Wonderland Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
He explains, "Growing up, I had Alice In Wonderland Syndrome, which is connected to migraines. You enter altered realities, it's like taking a hallucinogenic for a very short period. Every neuron seems to fire up and you think very clearly, but because it is connected to the optic nerve reality can take a strange turn; during one episode while talking to my wife, one half of her face just disappeared. It is all to do with a constriction of the blood flow to the optic nerve.
"It can also leave you feeling you have a memory that isn't yours, and that has informed what I write. The feeling of an oncoming episode is something I wove into Hyde - only he dreads it."
It certainly seems to be a recipe that works, Hyde may not yet be published but Hollywood has already optioned the movie rights, but then Russell has form when it come to seeing his work on screen. The movie rights to his last book, The Devil Aspect, have been bought by Columbia Pictures, and Biblical, his science-fiction novel, has been acquired by Imaginarium Studios/Sonar Entertainment.
He confirms, "Hyde is subject to a Hollywood option and I've been working with a screen writer talking about what elements should be brought out and it is a very interesting process, trying to distill the spirit of Edinburgh for someone who is looking at it from the outside."
So who could he see bring his character 'cruelly handsome' creation to life?
"That was one of the first questions I was asked when I started the discussion about the screen adaptation and it's an odd thing, he exists in my head and I can see him, but I never ever had any actor in mind."
Read the first of four exclusive extracts from Hyde, only in the Evening News