"Markheim" is a short story by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson that contains elements of crime fiction, horror and supernatural fantasy and also includes philosophical musings on the nature of good and evil. Stevenson wrote the story in 1884, intending it for publication in the London evening newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette. It did not, however, appear in that newspaper. The story first appeared in print in The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean which made up the 1886 edition of Unwin's Christmas Annual. "Markheim" was published again in 1887 as part of Stevenson's anthology The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables.
The title character of "Markheim" is a thief who gains entrance to an antiques dealer's shop on Christmas Day with the intention of stealing a large amount of money. After murdering the antiques dealer, Markheim searches for the key to his safe. A mysterious stranger (referred to as "the visitor") appears and offers to help Markheim. Believing the visitor to be the Devil, Markheim refuses his help because he believes that accepting it would be an admission of being evil. Markheim insists that, in spite of having done evil deeds, he is essentially good.
"Markheim" has been adapted for radio and television and has inspired two operas.
The story opens in an antiques dealer's shop on the afternoon of Christmas Day. Even though the shop is closed and its windows are shuttered, a 36-year-old man named Markheim has persuaded the dealer to let him in. Markheim has been to the shop many times before in order to sell objects that he claims to have inherited from his uncle. It is hinted that the dealer suspects that the objects have really been stolen, although he has bought them off Markheim anyway. Markeheim says that this time, he is not there to sell but to buy a last minute Christmas present for his fiancée. The dealer offers Markheim a mirror. Markheim says that is not a suitable gift because the reflections in mirrors allow people to see themselves as they become older and uglier. He then tries to engage the dealer in conversation. The dealer, however, is not interested. He tells Markheim to either buy something or leave the shop. Markheim asks the dealer to show him another potential present. As the dealer goes to fetch another object, Markheim stabs him in the back and kills him.
Markheim's motive for murdering the antiques dealer is robbery. Immediately after killing the man, however, Markheim thinks that he has made a mistake. It occurs to him that he could have simply tied the dealer up before robbing him. Although Markheim knows that the maid, the dealer's only servant, has gone to see her sweetheart and will be away all day, he also considers that he might have had a greater chance of getting away with his crime if he had killed the maid too. Markheim is very much afraid of being discovered. He even has thoughts of the building's walls suddenly becoming transparent and exposing his crime for all to see. Shortly after Markheim kills the dealer, all of the clocks in the shop chime three. Markheim thinks about stopping all of the clocks in the shop. It then occurs to him that suspicion might be aroused if no sound of clocks chiming comes from the shop when the next hour comes. There is a knock at the door and somebody calls out the antiques dealer's name. The person at the door eventually goes away. The idea that somebody else who is more persistent might come to the shop makes Markheim try to get on with the robbery quickly. He goes into the part of the building that is the dealer's private apartment. He goes upstairs, enters the living room, shuts the door and starts to look for the key to the dealer's safe.
The door opens. A man (later referred to as "the visitor" and "the visitant") stands in the doorway, smiles at Markheim and asks if he called for him. There appears to be something unreal or otherworldly about the visitor. His shape appears to be constantly changing in a subtle way, just as the shapes of the idols in the antiques shop appear to change in the flickering candlelight. At times, the visitor looks like someone that Markheim knows. At other times, the visitor looks like Markheim. The visitor politely says to Markheim, "You are looking for the money I perceive?" He goes on to warn Markheim that the maid has left her sweetheart early and is heading back to the shop. He adds, "if Mr. Markheim be found in the house, I need not describe to him the consequences."
Markheim is shocked that the visitor knows his name. The visitor replies that Markheim is a favorite of his and that he has long wanted to help him. Markheim asks the visitor if he is the Devil. The visitor neither confirms nor denies that he is the Devil. He says that should not make any difference to his offer of help. Markheim replies that it does. He clearly believes that accepting help from the Devil would be an admission of being wicked. Markheim insists that, although he has committed evil deeds, he was driven to do so out of desperation and he remains essentially good. The visitor acknowledges that some good people are driven to commit evil deeds by their circumstances but says that Markheim is not one of them. He explains, "it is not because you have killed a dealer, but because you are Markheim that I offer to forward your escape."
Admitting that he has been wicked so far, Markheim says that, after he steals the dealer's money, he plans to turn his life around. The visitor says that Markheim will invest the money in the stock exchange and lose it all. Markheim replies that becoming poor again would not necessarily mean that he would return to crime. The visitor says that he has been watching Markheim his entire life. Even though Markheim's financial situation has changed many times throughout his life, he has only become steadily more wicked. Fifteen years earlier, Markheim would not have stolen. Three years earlier, Markheim would not have killed. The visitor says that he can only see Markheim getting worse. He once again offers to help Markheim find the dealer's money. Markheim asks if he could repent afterwards. The visitor points out that Markheim has already tried to repent his sins. A few years earlier, he could be found enthusiastically singing hymns at revival meetings. Markheim realizes that the visitor has been speaking the truth. He is wicked and he has already failed to change his ways.
The doorbell rings. It is the maid who has returned to the shop. The visitor says that it is still possible for Markheim to get away with his crime if he kills the maid as well. Markheim replies that he still has a chance to redeem himself. At that moment, the visitor's appearance completely changes. He looks kind, beautiful and bright before he disappears. Markheim goes downstairs, opens the door to the maid and tells her to fetch the police because he has murdered her employer.
"Markheim" was adapted as an episode of the syndicated American radio series The Weird Circle that first aired on May 20, 1945 and as an episode of the American radio series The Hall of Fantasy that first aired on the Chicago station WGN on April 20, 1947. "Markheim" was faithfully adapted as a 1953 episode of the syndicated British radio series Theatre Royal. The episode stars Laurence Olivier as Markheim and Abraham Sofaer as the visitor. Episode 279 of the long-running American radio drama series CBS Radio Mystery Theater is loosely based on Markeheim. The episode, that had its first transmission on May 23, 1975, is entitled "Markheim: Man or Monster?" A reading of "Markheim" by actor Hugh Bonneville was first broadcast on the British digital radio station BBC Radio 7 (now BBC Radio 4 Extra) on December 12, 2009.
Under the title "All Hallows Eve", "Markheim" was adapted as the third episode of the fifth season of the American TV series Suspense. The episode first aired on CBS on October 28, 1952. The twenty-third episode of the American TV series Screen Directors Playhouse is an adaptation of "Markheim". The episode stars Ray Millard as Markheim and Rod Steiger as the visitor. It was first shown on ABC on April 11, 1956. "Markheim" was adapted as a 1959 episode of the syndicated American TV series Rendezvous. The episode stars Charles Drake, the series' host, as Markheim.
The American composer Carlisle Floyd wrote the music and libretto for a one-act opera based on "Markheim". It was first performed at the New Orleans Opera on March 31, 1966 with the American bass-baritone Norman Treigle in the role of Markheim and the American tenor William Diard as the visitor. Another one-act opera based on "Markheim", with music and libretto by the Italian composer Carlo Deri, was first performed at the Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy on April 18, 2015.
- Sound file of public domain audiobook of "Markheim" from LibriVox
- "The Upper Berth", another short story that was first published in The Broken Shaft: tales in Mid-Ocean