The Moonstone

Review From User :


The Moonstone, generally recognized as the first detective novel (despite the appearance of The Notting Hill Mystery a few years before), is not only a work of historical importance but also a work that transcends the genre it created, in the artfulness of its plotting, in its compassionate depiction of servants, and in its enlightened resolution of the theme of the British Empire, its crimes and their consequences.

Not that I wish to minimize its historical importance. The Moonstone is the first-certainly the first fully-formed-detective novel, and it contains within that great "first" a number of little "firsts": the first English country house mystery featuring a large guest list of suspects, the first crew of bumbling local policemen mucking about in the evidence, the first detective genius distinguished by an unlikely hobby, the first small, suggestive physical clue (a smear on the bottom of a newly-painted door), the first effective "red herrings" (I counted at least two), the first attempt at a precise reenactment of the crime at its original scene, and the first pursuit of a disguised criminal through the streets of a major city.

But it is the plot, which uses all these "firsts" to great advantage, that both astonishes and pleases the reader. The Moonstone is at least three times the length of the average detective novel, and yet it sustains interest and maintains credibility throughout its many twists. turns, and asides. Its plot reminds me of the melody line of Bellini's "Casta Diva," which strikes the ear as a thing of incomparable elegance, but never calls to mind-except upon later reflection-either its own extraordinary length or the expert craftsmanship such seamless length requires.

Also impressive is Collins' sympathetic depiction of the English servant class. Steward and Butler Gabriel Betteredge is a marvelous comic character, memorable for his daily readings of Robinson Crusoe, which he reveres as a source of divination and practical guidance. But Betteredge is also the essentially reliable narrator of half the novel, and, as we learn of the events on the Verinder estate through his eyes and ears, we grow to love and trust him as a good man and an intelligent observer. Also noteworthy is Collins' presentation of Roseanna, the servant girl with a deformed shoulder and a criminal past. Collins treats her with dignity, neither as a comic grotesque nor as an object of simple pity, but as fully human person with a unique, blighted destiny.

But perhaps my favorite thing about the book is Collins' use of "The Moonstone" itself, that great diamond snatched from a Hindu shrine by the villainous Colonel Herncastle during the Siege of Seringapatam-the 1799 climax to the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War which served to institutionalize English theft under the banner of the British East India Company. It is the second theft of this gem from the Verinder estate that precipitates the events of the novel, but memory of the original crime-and its curse-is never far from the reader, for the Brahmins who wish to return "The Moonstone" to the shrine of Chandra are never far away. At first these shadowy figures appear to be exotic villians, but Collins eventually shows us that the real criminals-both past and present-are the "respectable" English, and he grants his Hindu priests a moving coda. Sure, the ending of the novel is romantic, and exotic. But it is dignified and respectful of other cultures too.

The real reason, however, that you should read The Moonstone is that it endures, after all these years, as a diverting and absorbing entertainment. The first detective novel is still as readable as if it were published today.


by Wilkie Collins
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