In their list of the 50 greatest crime writers, The Times calls Wilkie Collins “the godfather of the detective novel.” Although Edgar Allan Poe introduced the detective short story to readers (see my post), it was Wilkie Collins who wrote the first full-length detective novel in English. The Moonstone initially appeared in serial form in Dickens’s periodical, All the Year Round. T. S. Eliot called The Moonstone “the first and greatest of English detective novels” (1927, 525). This classic mystery has remained popular for nearly a century and a half, and is still eminently readable today.
The originator of the “sensational novel,” Collins used the strange and the shocking to captivate his readers. As Nicci French points out:
Both The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868) are full of doppelgängers, drug-induced hallucinations, tormented and physically abnormal characters, nightmares and waking dreams, sleep-walkers and sinister strangers, ghostly portents and moonlit midnight encounters.The story begins on the occasion of Rachel Verinder’s 18th birthday. A number of people are invited to her party at the family country estate. Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, presents her with a legendary diamond called the Moonstone, a gem that originated in India hundreds of years before, and is rumoured to have a curse upon it. The day after the party, the Moonstone goes missing. A number of participants in the story tell their version of events in an effort to document what actually occurred at the time.
The story is divided into eight sections, each narrated by a different character. This multiple-narrative technique is the distinguishing mark of the novel, rarely executed with the same skill by subsequent mystery writers. The first narrator, Gabriel Betteredge, tells the reader that he is acting under orders of Franklin Blake who later compiles a written record of events:
I am forbidden to tell more in this narrative than I knew myself at the time. Or, to put it plainer, I am to keep strictly within the limits of my own experience, and am not to inform you of what other persons themselves told me – for the very sufficient reason that you are to have the information from those other persons themselves, at first hand. (233)This narrative technique simulates the procedures of a courtroom. The reader acts as jury, weighing and sifting conflicting claims and eye-witness evidence from multiple sources. Collins intensifies the illusion of realism by presenting documentary evidence such as letters, journals, newspaper accounts, and family documents. The reader is drawn into the narrative and, along with Franklin Blake, turns amateur detective.
Both Gabriel Betteredge and Miss Clack claim that they present a “plain statement of facts” in their narrative sections (232, 311), yet nothing could be further from the truth. Each narrator’s distinct personality colours the way s/he views and presents events. As we obtain additional evidence from each narrator, we reframe past events, re-altering our hypothesis of the guilty party. The shifting of suspicion from one character to another, and the cunning manipulation of the reader, argues P. D. James, “is done with great adroitness” (2009, 21).
Franklin Blake’s many-sided character is “clearly analogous to the many-faceted character of the diamond he carries, which shows a different ‘colouring’ as it is turned in different directions, toward different persons” (Rzepka 2005, 104). This many-faceted diamond also reflects the multiple-narrative technique of the novel.
The Moonstone has not one, but two detectives: Sergeant Cuff, the Scotland Yard detective who sets the standard and pattern for later police detectives, and Franklin Blake the amateur. Cuff has the superior reasoning ability and quick intelligence that characterizes numerous subsequent detectives.
The use of the ancient curse, the inclusion of the mysterious legend of the Moonstone, and the framing of the inner story within the larger historical and geographical context adds interest and depth to the detective story. The thematic concern with colonialism is explored with penetrating insight, providing a fascinating social and moral dimension to the novel. Lillian Nayder points out that Collins develops “the tie between the rape of India and the symbolic violation of Rachel Verinder” (1997, 118).
The plot itself is clever and many-layered, but readers have complained that Collins does not play fair with them, withholding specialized knowledge that makes the ending almost impossible to guess. Despite this drawback, The Moonstone is both a gripping and thought-provoking story. Many readers will agree with Dorothy L. Sayers’s final assessment of the novel:
The Moonstone is probably the very finest detective story ever written. By comparison with its wide scope, its dove-tailed completeness, and the marvellous variety and soundness of its characterisation, modern mystery fiction looks thin and mechanical. Nothing human is perfect, but The Moonstone comes about as near perfection as anything of its kind can be. (1928, 89)Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1966.
Eliot, T. S. “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Times Literary Supplement (August 4, 1927): 525-26.
James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.
Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Omnibus of Crime (1928-29)” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, 71-109. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992. Originally published as Introduction to Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror. London: Gollancz, 1928.