RogerBW's Blog

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins 22 February 2015

1868 mystery; often considered the first detective novel in English. The huge diamond, looted from India, goes missing after a birthday party. Who took it? And how was the trick managed?

More Victorian stodge, but just a tad less solid than The Warden. Moreover, there is no consistent narrator's voice to annoy the reader by pointing out the jokes; the book is told as a series of accounts by the various people involved. Of course, it would have been much shorter had a particular person spoken up earlier. The events surrounding the fatal night are recounted from a number of different viewpoints, and while the reader does eventually get a good picture of what was going on, this inevitably means that the earlier iterations must omit much and mislead about more.

Some of the humour is just as heavy-handed as in The Warden, particularly in the first two sections (narrated by the butler and steward Gabriel Betteredge, conducting sortilege in a copy of Robinson Crusoe between bouts of misogyny, and by the religious spinster Drusilla Clack, who hides Improving Books in houses she visits), but even these have their good moments:

I paid the cabman exactly his fare. He received it with an oath; upon which I instantly gave him a tract. If I had presented a pistol at his head, this abandoned wretch could hardly have exhibited greater consternation. He jumped up on his box, and, with profane exclamations of dismay, drove off furiously. Quite useless, I am happy to say! I sowed the good seed, in spite of him, by throwing a second tract in at the window of the cab.

The narrative is compelling in spite of the stumbles and general wordiness, particularly once we get out of those first two sections, and the book introduces many of the tropes that would become standards in detective fiction. It does postdate Poe, so cannot be said to have been first with the locked-room mystery, but it is a crime committed at an English country house, by one of those in the house rather than by an outsider, featuring plenty of red herrings and false suspects, a bungling local policeman, a celebrated professional investigator, a gentleman-sleuth, a reconstruction of the crime, and so on. There are also extensive side-notes on opium addiction, which Collins was in fact writing from personal experience.

It is perhaps fatter than it really needs to be, at nearly 200,000 words, and some of the characters (particularly Rachel Verinder, the young lady from whose possession the Moonstone is actually stolen) are never quite as developed as they might be – in her case, because she never takes over the narration. But the actual narrators do get rather more developed, and display as Collins intended "the influence of character on circumstance", something that later authors of mystery fiction have tended to ignore.

Unlike many later books, this one was written by a social reformer, so we get plenty of voices from the servants' hall as well as from above stairs. Nobody's explicitly crying for revolution, but there's an echo of the Dickensian tendency simply to portray a horrible situation and leave the reader to work out for himself that reform is needed. And while every narrator is biased and inclined to put his or her interpretation on things, we are fortunately free of any actual falsehoods addressed to the reader.

The experienced reader of detective fiction will certainly work out the most probably guilty party, but would not be able to prove it until the characters themselves do; this is not a simple crime, and key parts of the mechanism are not foreshadowed. One knows that the stone must have got from A to B, but not how that transfer came to happen.

...a man of pleasure, with a villa in the suburbs which was not taken in his own name, and with a lady in the villa, who was not taken in his own name, either.

Recommended with caution. If you don't mind the pace, and you can just about stomach Betteredge, stay with it, because the second half is much more enjoyable than the first: an exception to the usual rule that it's more interesting to pose mysterious questions than to answer them.

(Definitely not the first detective novel in English, though. There's Charles Felix's The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon's splendid The Trail of the Serpent (1860). Something in the air?)

Available from Project Gutenberg.

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See also:
The Warden, Anthony Trollope

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