The Moonstone

Wilkie Collins

The Hound's 1868 book of the year helped to shape the future of crime fiction. The novels is often said to be the godfather of the classic English detective story. TS Eliot claimed that the genre was "invented by Collins and not by Poe", declaring it to be "the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels".

Dorothy L Sayers, a queen of crime in the 1930s and 40s, pronounced it "probably the finest detective story ever written".

 

"The Moonstone is a page-turner," writes Carolyn Heilbrun. "It catches one up and unfolds its amazing story through the recountings of its several narrators, all of them enticing and singular."

 

Wilkie Collins's spellbinding tale of romance, theft, and murder inspired a hugely popular genre, the detective mystery. Hinging on the theft of an enormous diamond originally stolen from an Indian shrine, this riveting novel features the innovative Sergeant Cuff (one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters), the hilarious house steward Gabriel Betteridge, a lovesick housemaid, and a mysterious band of Indian jugglers.

The novel begins with the storming of the Palace of Seringaptam in India in 1799. During that siege, Colonel John Herncastle’s cousin witnesses him commit what seems to be murder, along with the theft of a valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone. From that moment, his cousin refuses to have anything to do with Herncastle. Much later, Herncastle bequeaths the Moonstone to his niece Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Franklin Blake, whose father was named executor of Herncastle’s will, has been dispatched to the Verinder residence with the diamond to carry out the terms of the will. This bequest, though, isn’t all that it seems. Herncastle and his sister Lady Julia Verinder have not been on good terms, and one belief is that the Moonstone is a curse on the Verinder family for not welcoming Sir John. Certainly there are stories that the diamond curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and even if the curse isn’t real, it seems that several groups of people have been after the diamond. One of them is a group of three people from India who seem to be charged with getting the diamond back and returning it to its home. Another is a group of shady people from London who’d like nothing better than to have the stone.

Trouble soon befalls the Verinder family. The diamond is duly given to Rachel Verinder on her birthday, but that night, instead of locking it away safely, Rachel determines to keep it in her room. The next morning, it’s gone. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. The diamond itself is traced to London, and seems to have been pledged to a money-lender. Now, the task is to find out who stole the diamond, who pledged it to the London moneylenders, and where the diamond is now. Sergeant Richard Cuff is put in charge of the investigation, and slowly, over the course of two years, he attempts to solve the mystery.

Multiple points of view give the reader a fascinating perspective on the events in the story and solid sense of each storyteller’s personality. Each narrative is clearly identified, too, so that we can easily see who’s telling the story at any given time.

Another element that runs through this novel is the social structure of the time. There are very clear class-based differences among the characters in the novel, and those differences are reflected in all sorts of subtle and more obvious ways. To take just one example, Sergeant Cuff believes that a missing article of clothing may hold the key to the missing Moonstone. So he asks that everyone’s possessions be searched. At first, Lady Verinder objects, saying that she doesn’t want to cast aspersions on her staff, who have already been under suspicion for the theft. It’s interesting, too, how all of the characters in this novel accept the social status quo. While Betteredge is the most outspoken in his views of women, all of the other characters seem to accept the social status of women in this novel as natural. Today’s readers wouldn’t likely tolerate that sort of blatant dismissal of women; however, the book does provide a fascinating look at relations between the genders at the time it was written.

There are many elements of the novel that would later become staples of crime fiction. There’s the wrongly-suspected “innocent” characters who later are cleared. There’s the “manor house” setting. There’s the stalwart Sergeant who’s trying to solve the crime. There’s romance, too. All of these elements have been refined by other authors, but we can see their seeds in this novel.

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

About Wilkie Collins:

A close friend of Charles Dickens' from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens' death in June 1870, William "Wilkie" Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. But after his death, his reputation declined as Dickens' bloomed. Now, Collins is being given more critical and popular attention than he has received for fifty years. Most of his books are in print, and all are now in e-text. He is studied widely; new film, television, and radio versions of some of his books have been made; and all of his letters have been published. However, there is still much to be discovered about this superstar of Victorian fiction.