The Strange Case of My Debt to Robert Louis Stevenson


High school was the height of my James Bond obsession. Today that would mean watching the movies any time you want on your iPad, but this was the early 1980s and we hadn’t quite reached the mass availability of VHS tapes. To watch an old Bond movie meant waiting every three months for one to appear on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. When a Bond movie was on, it was heavily hyped by ABC. And it was usually heavily edited by ABC.

The movies were a rare treat back then, so I had to turn to the books. I checked the Ian Fleming originals out of the library, and those that weren’t available at the library I tracked down at used book stores (only a few of the Fleming titles remained in print). The first one I bought was a Signet paperback copy of From Russia, With Love with its white cover and A JAMES BOND THRILLER written down the right edge. My mother was horrified when I brought it home. “I don’t think you should be reading books like that,” she said. Because, you know, sex.

I went ahead and read the books anyway (and if I were reading them for the sex, I would have been disappointed) and then reread my favorites. It seems I always had a James Bond book in my hands. I know I was reading other spy novels and mysteries at the time, but everything centered on Bond. Soon I was just as fascinated with Ian Fleming as I was in his creation.

My mother quietly despaired of all this She made one more attempt to lure me toward more respectable reading. We were in Candy World Book City in the West Erie Plaza one afternoon and she decided I needed to read a classic. She picked up a paperback copy of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson and said, “This is the kind of book you should be reading. Good literature.”


I looked at the cover. I think it had a pirate on it. I was unimpressed and resentful that she didn’t consider Ian Fleming good literature. She bought it and told me to read it. I read the first two pages, got bored and tossed it aside. Then I probably picked up Doctor No to read for the third time. I figured that was the end for me and Robert Louis Stevenson. Years earlier I had tried to read Treasure Island, but I couldn’t fathom its language either.

Let’s jump ahead a few decades as I begin to work on my YA spy thriller, The Boy Who Knew Too Much. My hero, Brian Parker, was a 15-year-old spy novel fanatic who finds himself in the middle of a real espionage plot. I was writing about a character very much like the younger me and figured my influences would be the many spy novelists I have read, primarily Fleming and Elleston Trevor, AKA Adam Hall, as well as Alfred Hitchcock movies. I intentionally stole the same setup as Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – dying spy passes along a clue to the innocent hero – but after that the action would follow the pattern of Hitchcock’s chase movies, such as North by Northwest and The 39 Steps.

The first secondary character I created was Jack Silver, an untrustworthy CIA officer who believes he can manipulate Brian. I picked the name Silver because I thought it sounded cool.

As I started plotting out my story, I gradually realized I was writing an updated version of Treasure Island with spies instead pirates. “Hey,” I told myself, “Jack Silver even fulfills the same role in my story that Long John Silver does in Treasure Island.” Then, and only then, did I realize I gave my corrupt spy the same name as Robert Louis Stevenson’s peg-legged pirate. I merely shortened the nickname. To change this coincidence from unconscious (subconscious?) theft to knowing literary homage, I gave my Silver a limp and then decided the limp was the reason he began to resent the CIA. Characterization!

So now that I had recognized my story’s indebtedness to Treasure Island, what was I to do with that intelligence? I had seen several movie versions of the tale – including Disney’s science-fiction, animated take, Treasure Planet – but I had never read the book. There was one thing for it. I had to read Treasure Island. I was looking for storytelling guidance. And I found it. As I said, I was still plotting out The Boy Who Knew Too Much on colored note cards and I was stumped for an ending. Treasure Island showed me how to end my book. I had to go back to the relationship between my young hero and the rogue he can’t trust but, unlike the other villains, isn’t liable to slit his throat.

It also dawned on me that the setup to The Man Who Knew Too Much, the “inciting incident” as the fiction-writing books call it, comes from Treasure Island. The dying spy who passes along information to Jimmy Stewart is the same as Billy Bones passing along his treasure map to Jim Hawkins. I thought I was ripping off Hitchcock, but I was ripping off Stevenson all along.

Besides these insights into my ending and beginning, something else surprised me about Treasure Island. I loved it. I turned the pages as eagerly as I turned the pages of Ian Fleming when I was a teenager. I was caught up in Jim Hawkins’ high seas exploits. I cowered when he hid in the apple barrel, overhearing the pirates’ plotting. I wondered how he could survive his encounter with the murderous Israel Hands. I understood why this book set the gold standard for adventure stories and why it is still being copied today.

I also began to appreciate that The Boy Who Knew Too Much follows a tradition that Stevenson himself established, a coming-of-age adventure story where a young man finds himself in a dangerous reality beyond the ken of the world he has always known. I read Stevenson’s similar books, The Black Arrow and, yes, Kidnapped. Once spurned, this book now inspired me. I thought of David Balfour’s tense passage through the Scottish Highlands as I wrote my book’s middle section, where Brian and Larissa DeJonge, the girl he meets in France, cross the Pyrenees on foot.

I once shunned Robert Louis Stevenson because of my jealous devotion to Ian Fleming. I cannot help but grin and salute the irony that he has now become just as important an inspiration to me. Ian Fleming and Robert Louis Stevenson were the twin stars I followed as I navigated the twists and turns of my first novel (my blurb is the book “combines the thrills of James Bond with the sweep of Treasure Island”). The moral of the story: Your mother is smarter than you think she is.

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