Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

“… a very curious story – wild, and yet domestic – with excellent character in it, great mystery and nothing belong to disguised women or the like. It is prepared with extraordinary care, and has every chance of being a hit. It is in many respects much better than anything else he has done.” Charles Dickens

The Moonstone published in 1868 and is often said to be the first detective novel. It contains many elements that more famous and more recent authors have used to great effect: a country house setting, assembling the cast of possible culprits to recreate the crime and a brilliant but flawed detective.

Collins was meticulous in his planning and researching his plot and characters. Every detail was worked out in advance – a way of working that his contemporary Anthony Trollope could not understand. The Moonstone as a novel centres on the inheritance and theft of a large cursed Indian Diamond. The book opens with a prologue describing the looting of the jewel from Seringapatam (Shriringapatna) in 1799 by British forces which according to legend invoked a prophecy from the Hindu God Vishnu predicting “certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after”.

The yellow diamond is inherited by the niece of the officer who stole it in India upon her 18th birthday. It is presented to her at her birthday party hosted within a country house on the North Yorkshire coast. The house may well have been based upon Mulgrave Castle, near Whitby, at the time the home of Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab.

The party brings together a wide and varied cast of characters all with a story to tell. The party unfolds without incident though facts are revealed and cautions spread. The next morning the jewel is found to be missing! A detective is called to discover the criminal and over 420 pages a carefully calculated and well-drawn out plot unfolds recounted through the separate narratives from some of the principal characters until the end untwists.

The book is a great read for the admirer of detective fiction. At 500 pages long it is not a short novel but its length and paces gives the reader time and space to sink into the story. It is worth revisiting if you have already read it and, if not, then do dip into one of Victorian England’s best detective novels.

Andrew Morrison 
April 2015

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