Three Studies in Evil

In Coffin, Glass and Beauregard, the reader is being presented with three different types of evil. Q did not believe people were born evil, but became evil through circumstance and free decision. Q was not a religious, political or scientific determinist. In a review of Origins: How the Earth Made Us found in the Literary Review of February 2019, page 38, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto says:  'Environmental determinism is a falsehood easily disproved … Yet pop science inflicts determinist books on us …' Q would have added Marxism and Calvinism. We are not determined by original sin, genetic make-up or social class. Theories and hypotheses based on such notions, common in his day as in ours, he dismissed.


Captain Daniel Coffin of Falmouth is prefigured in Q's first novel, Dead Man's Rock, in the character Amos Trenoweth of Lantrig. Both men are haunted by conscience regarding evil deeds committed in the pursuit of treasure at an earlier time and in a distant place. Both retain a knowledge of the treasure's location and a burden of guilt regarding it. Trenoweth tries to find relief in religion, Coffin in drink. A more unscrupulous character in Dead Man's Rock is Simon Colliver, based on a Looe pirate of that name. Colliver is reproduced in Roderick Salt from The Blue Pavilions and in Aaron Glass from Poison Island. All three are vicious and apparently devoid of moral parameters.

Daniel Coffin was reared in respectable poverty; a little below that of Amos Trenoweth, who supplemented his income from smuggling, until he shot a preventive officer and had to flee abroad, with his moral decline following. Coffin's father was a seaman, whose death resulted in Daniel maintaining his mother on the wage of a coastal trader. After her death in 1778, he was free to marry, choosing a religious woman, by whom he had a daughter. The death of both from smallpox caused his moral collapse. He secured a position on a slave trader working between Africa and America.

In 1790, near Cape Corse Castle, a trading station in west Africa, he encountered Melhuish of Newfoundland, obtaining from him a treasure map of Mortallone. This resulted in an expedition from the trading station of Whydah, in company with Klootz, Aaron Glass, his agent, and Klootz's son-in-law, to Mortallone, where they encounter Beauregard or Martin, who had known Melhuish in Newfoundland. Coffin and Glass, possibly having murdered the other two, escape with the map. Coffin tries unsuccessfully to kill Glass, but does manage to sell him to a press-gang, before retiring to Falmouth expecting to see Glass no more.

Possessing a quantity of guineas secured on Mortallone, Coffin is sufficiently well off to finance another trip to the island. When he encounters Glass, who has returned from ten years as a POW in France, he fears for his map and his life. On a journey to Major James Brooks at Minden Cottage, who he trusts with the treasure map, Coffin is murdered by Glass in a copse behind the cottage.

Coffin appears initially in the novel as a comic figure, a harmless drunk harrassed by the local children, then as one to be pitied for his eccentricities. The dark side of his life is revealed in obscure conversations and occasional asides, plus references in the log. The log also reveals the tragic side of Coffin, the loss of his wife and child, and the absence of support from wider family. If it had not been for the smallpox epidemic, his life would have been very different. As it is, he dies torn apart by avarice, guilt and alcohol.


Aaron Glass is rather a different type. We first meet him as an agent in the slave trade, who gets himself included in the expedition to Mortallone, being one of only two survivors. On a second expedition, without a map, Glass is recognised by Beauregard as a former treasure seeker. Beauregard has a low opinion of him, expecting him to murder, as he probably had murdered Klootz. To silence Glass after the first expedition, Coffin tries unsuccessfully to kill him. Then he sells him to a press-gang, resulting in Glass spending up to ten years as a POW in the French prison of Givet, where the vicious edge of his nature is hardened further.

On returning from Givet to Falmouth and a chance meeting with Coffin, Glass endeavours to kill Coffin and steal the Mortallone chart. Having failed to discover either in Coffin's lodgings, Glass follows Coffin to Minden Cottage, murders Coffin in a copse and Brooks in the summerhouse, but leaves empty-handed for Plymouth, where he gathers a group of three, including Jim Lucky, for another descent on Mortallone.

Glass, like Roderick Salt in The Blue Pavilions, is not without intelligence, or at least cunning, but is possessed by a tendency to weakness, carelessness and overconfidence. He is outwitted by Beauregard on the first expedition to Mortallone, and by Coffin afterwards. He is outwitted by Beauregard on his second expedition and through his own fault: the boat he uses is not properly concealed and the fire he lights is visible from its smoke, even from the deck of the Espriella. This enables Beauregard to place a chest of fake jewels on the route from the camp to the boat. Glass murders his two companions before being confronted by  Beauregard and the worthlessness of the treasure. Finally he is poisoned by Beauregard.

As a slave trader and a treasure hunter Glass lacks proper human feeling. Unlike Coffin, the reader hears of no home and family, no life-changing experience, no friends. He has one dominating passion, avarice, and will stop at nothing to satisfy his craving. He wants money for money's sake, yet if he obtained it he would discover no happiness. The evil in Glass inevitably leads to self-destruction.


While Coffin and Glass desire wealth for its own sake, Beauregard sees it as a way to power, as he explains to Lydia Belcher in the final chapter of the novel. Lydia Belcher inherited wealth from a local landowner, possibly her real father, and wishes to increase it through smuggling, but it is to keep a certain standing in society and lavish hospitality upon her friends, of whom she has many. Beauregard's desire for power is in part a desire for revenge. Within him is hatred for those who were born to wealth and pretended a charity to salve their own conscience. That he was the recipient of that charity wounds his pride. He wishes to look down upon them as they had looked down upon him and to destroy them when he is tired of the game.

If Dr Beauregard has a forerunner, it is the Earl of Marlborough from The Blue Pavilions, who tricks Salt as Beauregard tricks Glass. Both desire wealth for the purposes of power and both possess the high intelligence necessary to manipulate the lives of others, although the evil more than the virtuous. This limitation on the powers of evil is based on a theological belief that evil is the absence of good. It is negative, it creates nothing permanent and it can have no place in reconstruction; thus in Shakespeare's play Macbeth, Macbeth ultimately falls before Malcolm, his kingdom in ruins. The idea of evil being stronger than good, as in agnosticism, Q saw as becoming increasingly pervasive, as he says in the preface to the Duchy Edition of The White Wolf. Following the First World War Q saw himself as writing and lecturing against the age.

Until the court cases of Dr Harold Shipman and others in more recent times, Dr Beauregard might have been seen as a figure of the imagination; but that is no longer possible. Doctors appear in many of Q's novels, Beauregard being the only malevolent one. Q is intent upon exploring his motivations, a very different approach from the sensation-condemnation one of the contemporary media. Although Poison Island can be read simply as an adventure story, possibly being written as such, more profound levels are discernible.

The first biographical information provided for the reader is contained in Captain Coffin's log (Chapter XIX), where Beauregard is named Martin of Carbonear. Melhuish of Carbonear informs Captain Coffin that Martin was born of an English ship's captain and a Spanish woman in Havana. This suggests illegitimacy and slum poverty, something Beauregard alludes to at the conclusion of the novel. The mother was presumably a Catholic who gave the child to the Jesuits to be educated for the priesthood, thus saving him from poverty and crime. Catholicism was eventually rejected for secular materialism, with Martin transferring from the Jesuit institution in Havana to a college at Port Royal, with chemistry as the subject of choice. This led to the discovery of a preparation for the curing of skins, which drew the interest of Davis and Atchison at Carbonear. They employed him so as to make the discovery a commercial success, which provided Martin with moderate wealth but not enough to satisfy him.

At this point the narrative becomes difficult to follow. That Martin knows of the Mortallone treasure can be understood on the basis of its being common knowledge in Havana, along with the Puerto Bello fiasco. But how Martin connected Shand to Griffiths, the mate of the Rosaway, is unclear. However, Martin lures Shand from his lodgings one night, forces him to reveal the location of the treasure map and kills him. As the map resides with the Melhuish family and was not in the chest of Shand which Martin removes on orders (legitimate or forged) from Davis and Atchison, Martin ingratiates himself with the Melhuish family and obtains sight of the chart. Martin organises an expedition to Mortallone, with the son of the family as guide, Dick Hayling as steersman, and a crew. Martin tricks Melhuish into poisoning the crew once the Willing Mind  approaches the island. The poison kills and preserves the body, possibly being a derivative of the preparation Martin interested Davis and Atchison in. Melhuish escapes to west Africa with the treasure map, depriving Martin of the exact locations of the treasure, particularly the larger hoard. Martin cannot feel safe from further informed intrusions with the map out of his possession.

Martin is able to access a minor repository of treasure, but not the main one, information about it being found only on the map possessed by Melhuish. With this he builds a house and furnishes it expensively and tastefully, enters into the culture, particularly the musical culture, of the Americas, and pays for medical training in Havana. He now ceases to be Martin and becomes Dr Beauregard. Instead of being the recipient of charity he is able to mix with the affluent on equal terms, both as the proprietor of an island, legally entrusted to him by the Spanish authorities, and as a medical practitioner. Some who are induced to the island fail to return, with the graveyard discovered by Harry Brooks in Chapter XXVI being their last resting place. How this did not arouse suspicion is unclear. An opera singer, 'Metta, accompanied by her servant, Rosa, become prisoners, occupying a main and a subsidiary residence. An ice machine is constructed to dispense poisoned ice.

The bane of Beauregard's life are the treasure hunters, eleven groups having been eliminated or having eliminated themselves in 20 years. Behind this is the disappearance of the Mortallone chart which Melhuish had taken with him, and two individuals, Coffin and Glass, who had visited and escaped from the island. Beauregard wants the map to locate the main repository of treasure for himself and to prevent its discovery by others. He little suspects 'Metta to have already accessed the location, a cave in a cliff behind the main residence. In pursuit of Coffin, Glass and the map, he appears in the garden of Minden Cottage, where he speaks to Harry Brooks. This conversation includes a reference, (dated July 5, 1813) to Dr Beauregard's visit to Napoleon on the isle of Elba.

Beauregard and Shakespeare's Prospero

From Chapters XXVII to XXXIV, the final ones of the novel, set on the island of Mortallone, Q bases the narrative on Shakespeare's The Tempest and the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The technique of basing a present narrative on literary and mythical predecessors, and which themselves are based on more ancient foundations, is ever present in Q's fiction, reaching its most sophisticated expression in Sir John Constantine of 1906 which draws on the stories of Odysseus and Don Quixote and the unfinished novel Castle Dor which is based on the story of Tristram and Isolde.

When Q and J.D. Wilson produced an edition of The Tempest for 'The New (Cambridge) Shakespeare' series in 1921, they propounded a theory that the drama was a later version of an earlier play, altered in various ways, but based on an ancient and universal motif. We have a palimpsest where even the earliest forms continue to inform the most recent. Q explores this idea of 'palimpsest' in the prologue to Castle Dor, written sometime after 1925. Although Poison Island can be viewed as an adventure story akin to those of R.L. Stevenson, the last chapters invite a different interpretation of the whole work. The interest for the commentator is in investigating how Q adapted material from The Tempest and Orpheus and Eurydice for his novel.

In conversations with Captain Branscome in Chapter XXX, Dr Beauregard equates himself to Prospero in bemoaning his failure to possess an Ariel. Earlier, in Chapter XXVI, 'Metta informs Harry Brooks of her former career as an opera singer, performing as Eurydice in Gluck's opera Orpheus and Eurydice. Which 'King' she performed in front of is not stated but the opera house must have been European.

Prospero views the approaching boat containing the Milanese, drawn to the island by his powers, just as Beauregard views the Espriella drawn to Mortallone by 'Fate' (Chapter XXXII). The day before the Espriella  had been observed, Beauregard had become aware of, in the words of  Ariel from The Tempest, '...three men of sin, whom Destiny ...Had caus'd to belch up...' . Ariel sees himself as a minister of 'Fate' . However, 'The New Shakespeare' sees Providence rather than Fate as central to the drama. So while Beauregard interprets events like Ariel in terms of Fate, Q's real theme is Providence.

Beauregard uses poisons, administered to guests from an ice machine and to Glass from a phial, as Fate's conclusion for those he encounters and against whom he harbours animosity. The Tempest  also exhibits a range of poisons, including one working at a delay. Gonzago speaks of a 'poison given to work a great time after'. According to Beauregard, 'It was power I wanted' (Chapter XXXIV). Beauregard's thoughts are captured by Prospero when he says:

  '… high charms work,

And these mine enemies are all knit up

In their distractions: they are now in my power;'


There is a difference, however, between Prospero and Beauregard, the former being constructive and the latter destructive. The 'power' that they employ, constructively or destructively, appears to be both natural and supernatural. Harry Brooks is aware of a 'power' preventing him from uttering a warning in Beauregard's house to his companions (Chapter XXXIV); while 'Metta seems to be infected by an evil influence or power emanating from Beauregard.

'Metta is presented as a putrefied Ariel. Unlike Ariel she has a body, one which thrilled audiences on the opera stage, but now infected by Beauregard and infecting everything it touches. In Greek mythology, Eurydice is the dead wife of Orpheus, who is led back by Orpheus from the world of the dead to that of the living, until he turns to look at her, at which point she has to retreat back to the shades for ever. When Beauregard is away, 'Metta spends much of her time in a grotto scented with death and bedecked with lost treasure in a cliff face gallery. It is the lost treasuure of Puerto Bello and to this 'Metta leads Harry Brooks. But with the sudden appearance of Beauregard and the Espriella party, guided by the treasure chart, 'Metta falls to her death from the face of the cliff. Ariel, Eurydice and avarice combine in 'Metta. She is the first of the inhabitants of Mortallone to die.

The last chapters of the novel reveal to the reader a Dr Beauregard which the character of Martin had little prepared him or her for. The orphan of Havana has blossomed into a connoisseur of European culture, with little indication of how the change was effected. When we meet Beauregard at Minden Cottage, in Chapter XXII, he has recently come from a meeting with Napoleon on Elba. In the final chapter he is an elderly man with a past dominated by wealth, poisonings and personal power, about which he feels no regret. His medical training has instilled no compassion. He is without religion other than a belief in 'Fate' and, like Macbeth, faces death unabsolved. 'Redemption' he sees as something 'innate' rather than supernatural, something a 'bastard' such as himself cannot possess unless he mates with a superior person, seeing this superior person in Lydia Belcher. The grace which Macbeth refuses he does not seriously consider. The irony of his conversation with Lydia Belcher is that she was the product of a lord and a commoner. The supposed father was the lord's gamekeeper, as we learn from Harry Revel.

The Ferdinand and Miranda theme is played out in Captain Branscome and Amelia Plinlimmon. In  Harry Revel, Jack Rogers is intimated as having an attraction to Lydia Belcher but there is little evidence of this in Poison Island.

The novel closes with Beauregard taking his own poison, the evil of his own nature having achieved nothing. This is the belief, propagated by St Augustine and others, of evil being the absence of good, a purely negative influence. In fact the novel ends with the deaths of Beauregard, 'Metta and Rosa, the surrender of treasure to strangers and the island's return to a state of nature. Good, symbolised in Captain Branscome and Amelia Plinlimmon, whose selflessness shines through both novels, triumphs. Yet is it the close? Poison Island is the Iliad without the Odyssey. Maybe Q was contemplating a sequel based on a return journey. The island has encompassed the whole of the intended action.

The novel closes with the death of Beauregard at his own hands. He poisons himself as he had poisoned Glass. Glass dies having previously murdered Coffin. The treasure has proved valueless to them. Whether it will prove valuable to the Espriella party is left unstated. The novel ends with the cleansing of evil but with the cause of the evil still in existence.