Monday, 9 June 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This book is regarded as the first detective novel written in the English language. There are other contestants like Edgar Allan Poe's short mystery stories The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and The Purloined Letter (1845) which were published before the Moonstone (1868). However that is, all stories are great.

T.S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe". Dorothy L. Sayers says: "probably the very finest detective story ever written!. G.K Chesterton calls it "Probably the best detective tale in the world". The story introduces the always fascinating mystery of the 'locked-room'. Collins also introduces here elements that has become classic attributes in detective stories up to our days, such as;
"English country house robbery, an "inside job", red herrings, a celebrated, skilled, professional investigator, bungling local constabulary, detective enquiries, large number of false suspects, the "least likely suspect", a rudimentary "locked room" murder, a reconstruction of the crime and a final twist in the plot." It definitely makes me think of Agatha Christie among others.

Another thing, rather sensational that made the Moonstone a success was the opium addiction and its consequences. Laudanum was in common use in those days and led to addiction of which Collins was one. It had never been depicted so clearly as in the Moonstone before.

Now to the story. It starts in India where a famous diamond is stolen. It was dedicated to the God Shiva. There was a curse to go with it. Anyone, except Shiva or the temple, who were in possession of the diamond were to be followed by accidents and unhappy events. In spite of this a corrupt colonel steals it in a raid and brings it back with him to England. The stone was always guarded by three temple priests and they now follow the colonel back to Europe to try to take the stone back.

We then jump 20 years forward and the colonel upon his death, gives the stone to his niece on her next birthday. The colonel has been at odds with his family his whole life and the sister can not understand why he has given this 'dangerous' stone to her daughter. The birthday is celebrated with a birthday party and the stone is delivered to the lady by Franklin Blake a young man who has mostly lived abroad. Needless to say is that Franklin Blake falls in love with Rachel Verinder. However, she has another suitor, her cousin Godfrey Ablewhite. Then there is a group of performing Indians in the neighbourhood. The party is successful and Blake hands over the stone to Rachel. She puts it on her dress for the evening. When retiring to bed she insists of keeping the stone in an unlocked cabinet in her sitting room. Voila. Morning comes and the stone is gone!

The story is divided into different narratives of people in connection with the event. The old trustworthy servant Betteredge starts his narrative, then it continues with Miss Clack a spinster and religious fanatic, goes on to Mr Bruff the lawyer, Franklin Blake and in the end a doctor Ezra Jennings. The story unfolds with each narrator and we get to see it from different points of view. It is fantastically done and the end, when we finally get to know who the culprit is, is magnificent. It has all the ingredients mentioned above.

It is an easy read, a lot of dialogue and the language seems rather fresh, although written so long ago. We will discuss this book in the Brontë Reading Group in the end of June and I am really looking forward to hear the others' opinions.

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