Author: Wilkie Collins
No. of Pages: 596
First Released: 1868
Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): “One of the first English detective novels, this mystery involves the disappearance of a valuable diamond, originally stolen from a Hindu idol, given to a young woman on her eighteenth birthday, and then stolen again.”
Comments and Critique: As mentioned by others, this is considered the first detective novel. To me, this is a character novel first and foremost. The narrative is told by various participants and eyewitnesses to the disappearance of the diamond. From an aging servant to a spinster activist to a charming bachelor to a lawyer to a great investigator and more, the different viewpoints not only further along the mystery to the point of resolution, Mr. Collins uses them to share pointed commentary on various characteristics found in real-life. It is equal parts amusing, uncomfortable and intriguing.
This is actually the second time I read this book. The first time I read it, I focused on the mystery itself. I found myself trying to solve the crime before it was resolved, which is something I never really try to do. As far as mysteries go, while it may be considered the first great detective novel, with crime shows the primary focus on television these days and the proliferation of detective thrillers in general, The Moonstone is quite an easy mystery to solve. The twists and turns which may have kept Mr. Collins’ readers on the edge of their seats waiting for the publication of the next installment just do not have the same impact that they do for today’s reader. We’ve already seen them played out in hundreds of mysteries for them to be an effective plot device anymore.
This second read found me focusing on everything but the mystery, even though I did not quite remember whodunit. As I mentioned, this is as much a character novel as it is a mystery. As a character piece, this book is one of the best I’ve ever read. The lovable, aging but extremely loyal servant, Gabriel Betteredge, on the surface appears to be nothing but a grandfatherly type, until he starts talking about his wife and women in general, why they are the inferior sex. He talks quite bluntly about treating pretty house servants differently, patting their cheek and other rather sexist behaviors towards women. Yes, he is lovable but his opinion on women is definitely a failing.
Miss Clack is another narrator who is not quite as innocent as she professes on the page. Espousing Christian virtues, Miss Clack exhibits some of the most un-Christian behavior in the book. Comparing her actions with those of the mysterious but extremely devout Hindu servants, Mr. Collins is so subtly hinting at the fact that Christianity may not be the only, or best, religion.
In fact, the charm of this story is the fact that Mr. Collins suggests that English imperialism has a lasting impact on both countries and not for the better. Given the fact that the Moonstone used to be part of a Hindu idol, the suggestion as to the rightful heirs of the diamond could be debated forever. It is an interesting foreshadowing to the imperialism debate when imperialism did not truly become popular until after The Moonstone was published. To say that Mr. Collins was ahead of his time with social commentary and with detective novels is definitely an understatement!
In parting, this is such an enjoyable book. From a historical perspective, this is a great way to go back to the beginning origins of the detective mystery and discover just how many of our popular, beloved detectives got their start from Sergeant Cuff. As I mentioned, the social commentary, while subtle, is definitely worth discovering. I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Wilkie Collins!
So, what are your thoughts? Have you read The Moonstone? Likes? Dislikes? More importantly, should I add The Woman in White to my TBR list?