The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

(Project Gutenberg e-book, originally published 1868)

Oxford World Classics edition cover (image from Amazon)

Regarded by some as the first English detective novel, this exciting and interesting novel is told from a variety of different viewpoints. The plot is easily summarised. On the death of her uncle, Colonel Herncastle, in 1848, Rachel Verinder is bequeathed a huge yellow diamond, the Moonstone, on her eighteenth birthday. The Colonel came by the diamond in India, where it had formerly been set in the forehead of a statue of Vishnu as the Moon, though at the time of his acquisition of the diamond, it was in the treasure house of the king of Seringapatam. On the same day that Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, arrives in Yorkshire with the diamond, a trio of Indians arrive in the village and are spotted lurking around Lady Verinder’s house.

On Rachel’s birthday, she’s presented with the diamond, wears it that evening against her mother’s wishes, and puts it away in her cabinet at the end of the evening. Only a few guests at her dinner party are staying in the house; most of the others live in the village. The next morning, a hue and cry arises, for the diamond is gone! When the local police fail to discover the thief, and annoy almost everyone in the house, Mr Blake decides to send for the celebrated Sergeant Cuff, to fathom the mystery. He’s hampered in this by Rachel’s strange behaviour, which even her mother is at a loss to account for, and he eventually concludes that Rachel herself has stolen the diamond!

This narrative is all written by Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder’s steward and trusted servant, and thereafter the story is told from various points of view as Collins reveals how and why the diamond was removed from Rachel’s room, who pledged it, and what eventually happened to it. It’s a method which works very well, particularly as Collins differentiates the narrative voices very well, and the characters have a good deal of background to them. Miss Clack’s is probably the funniest – she’s a relative of the late Sir John Verinder, and is a rather self-deceiving young woman dedicated to pointing out the flaws in other people and handing out religious tracts at every opportunity – and Ezra Jennings’ the most moving (he’s an assistant to Mr Candy, the doctor, and has a history of great personal tragedy), but the others convey equally well the character of the narrator as well as carrying on the story.

Collins’ own social beliefs stand out benignly. The Indians are treated with respect by the main characters (if distrusted) and definitely by the narrative, although never named (understandably, since the narrating characters never find these out); the main female characters of Lady Verinder and Rachel are strong and intelligent, and both they and Rosanna Spearman, a servant in the house who is mixed up in the crime, are realistic, sympathetic, and well-drawn. Likewise Collins does the servant characters the courtesy of making them real people, with likes and dislikes, and their own motivations. All the characters are well-rounded, and I don’t think the plot is at all unbelievable: it’s exciting and very readable, and Collins writes his surprises very well. On first reading, it’s the cleverness of the plot and the revelations which delight; on a second or subsequent readings, the delight is in Collins’ characters and the skill of his narration.

There was a very good TV adaptation of 1997, which I’d recommend, with Keeley Hawes as Rachel and Greg Wise as Franklin Blake – I now associate Sergeant Cuff with the wonderful Antony Sher, and Gabriel Betteredge with Peter Vaughan, but all the other characters were beautifully cast and acted.

This is a favourite of mine, well worth reading, even if you’re not really a fan of detective novels.

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5 Responses to The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

  1. celawerd says:

    I had not heard of the book before. I’ll have to download it on my kindle.

  2. Jenny says:

    I’m selectively a fan of detective fiction, but I never think The Moonstone exactly qualifies. It’s a wonderful mystery though. It’s got all sorts of things in it, and the resolution of the mystery was superb, and even though Miss Clack is a one-note character, it’s a very funny note. 🙂

    • Ela says:

      Yes, I think it doesn’t qualify as detective fiction, really, though I do like the way Sergeant Cuff is presented almost as a celebrity! And I definitely agree about Miss Clack’s narrative 😉 I do like the way Collins varies the narrative voice so much – that’s one thing about the TV version that can’t compare to the book, since there’s none of the real sense of character one gets from their narratives.

  3. Pingback: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins | Iris on Books

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