The Moonstone, a yellow diamond looted from an Indian temple and believed to bring bad luck to its owner, is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. That very night the priceless stone is stolen again and when Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate the crime, he soon realizes that no one in Rachel’s household is above suspicion. Hailed by T. S. Eliot as ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels’, The Moonstone is a marvellously taut and intricate tale of mystery, in which facts and memory can prove treacherous and not everyone is as they first appear.
I read this book to fill the Gothic square of my 2019 Halloween Bingo Card.
Well, finally, I have managed to read this Wilkie Collins classic, and I’m glad that I did. It is remarkable for the way it got detective fiction started. I could certainly see the roots of the genre in it and it reminded me strongly of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four. Sergeant Cuff, with his eye for detail and absorption in rose cultivation, seems like a clear predecessor of Sherlock Holmes, with his predilection for violin playing and smelly chemistry experiments. Both novels result from treasures stolen from the Indian subcontinent and Indian people appear in England in both cases to retrieve the ill-gotten valuables. Also appreciated was one of the earliest crime scene re-enactments in literature.
The Moonstone doesn’t rush it’s way to the finish line. Instead, it meanders and circles a bit, as the literature of the time period does. I thought that Collins must have had great fun writing the first two narrators--both Gabriel Betteredge and Drusilla Clack are entertaining for their eccentricities. Both have placed their faith in a particular book: Gabriel relies on Robinson Crusoe, while Drusilla trusts more to the Bible, or rather interpretations thereof by her favourite religious people. Each of them regards people who don’t pay attention to their book as heathens. Probably most of us have encountered a Drusilla at some point or may even count them as family members--we hope we see them before they see us, allowing us time to hide or flee!
Collins certainly reveals his excellent understanding of people with his characters. I found his depiction of Godfrey Ablewhite especially interesting, as it related to Collins’ own personal life. Godfrey proposes to Miss Rachel Verinder, but seems to be rather easily made to back away from their engagement, though it makes his father apoplectic. We learn later that he has been keeping a woman in grand style and had he succeeded in marrying Rachel, this woman would have been sure to ruin his reputation! Perhaps this is why Collins maintained two households without ever marrying either woman--they could tolerate being equal, but his marrying one would have automatically made the unmarried woman into the Other Woman, with the concomitant social censure.
Collins certainly set a pattern in literature with valuable gems being the centre pieces of mysterious goings on. I think even of modern urban fantasy such as Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews with it’s pillaged Indian crown, featuring a beautiful stone, which is used for nefarious purposes and eventually returned to India where it belongs, with the knowledge that nothing good comes from stealing from other cultures.