Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Travelling Companion by Ian Rankin Review

Set in the early 1980s for no discernible reason, a young Scottish Robert Louis Stevenson scholar called Ronald Hastie spends his summer in Paris working at the world-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop. He meets an eccentric playboy who reveals that he not only possesses the presumed-destroyed first draft of Jekyll and Hyde but also has Stevenson’s original, unpublished manuscript, The Travelling Companion. And as Ronald learns of the true inspiration behind Jekyll and Hyde, something evil stirs within him…

Part of the Bibliomysteries series (“Deadly Tales About Deadly Books”), Ian Rankin’s The Travelling Companion is a story of two halves. The first half is quite dull as our protagonist gushes about books in general without being especially interesting about it while Rankin does little with the story. But the second half definitely picks up even if, upon closer inspection, the reader has to accept some rushed and silly narrative jumps. 

The similarities to Jekyll and Hyde are there (not least in the short format of the book) with the theme of opposites and halves, as well as a dash of fantasy horror at the right moment. That said the changes in the second half feel a bit extreme and arbitrary while underscoring the incorrect assumption that Stevenson’s tale was a commentary on substance abuse. But the sudden shift does make the story compelling, especially in contrast to the dreary first half, so I can forgive Rankin the clumsy 180. 

Rankin is as much a Stevenson fan as the characters in his story and you’ll learn about the famous writer through reading this even if quite a bit of his life was made up to suit the tale’s twists and turns. For example, Stevenson didn’t know anyone called Hythe nor did he write a novel, unpublished or not, called The Travelling Companion. 

The story takes a while to get going and the finale is a bit hammy in relying upon heavy exposition, but it’s a quick and accessible read that mildly entertains. Bibliophiles will like this even more for the book-porn aspect!

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