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Mystery author #1: Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone

As the first book of my challenge I chose a classic of the mystery genre. It has been called the first mystery novel ever written, which is not entirely correct, but it is true that it is the first mystery novel known to include all of the most important features of the modern crime mystery. Some of these features had been used in previous mystery stories, but some were new.

Title: The Moonstone
Year (originally) published: 1868
Availability: In print, or, since it has passed into the public domain, you can read it online or download it here
Pages: 518 pages in the e-book version, downloaded and read in Word (font: Geneva, 12 pt). The Penguin Popular Classics version is 464 pages.
Settings and time: English country manor and surrounding area (mostly), London (a little), India (scene setting and conclusion), mid 1800's.
Type of mystery: Whodunit: theft
Type of investigator: Amateurs and a professional detective
Some themes: Justice and injustice, misunderstanding between lovers, unrequited love, religious mania, hidden identity, addiction, money troubles, hypocrisy, scientific principles, death.

Summary (no spoilers):
A foreword tells the story of how the Moonstone, a fabulous yellow diamond, is taken from its rightful place in the forehead of the idol of an Indian moon-god, by a Mughal conqueror, and passed on from one owner to the next, along with a curse of bad fortune. It is also followed by three Brahmins, the stone’s guardians, who are intent on recovering the stone should the opportunity present itself. Generations have passed when a British officer steals the stone and takes it to England with him, followed by its current guardians.
Here the story proper begins. Upon his death, he wills the stone to his niece, Lady Rachel Verinder. It is delivered to her by her cousin, Mr. Franklin Blake, who is in love with her and vice versa. Rachel is given the stone on her birthday, but only gets to keep it for one day, as someone steals it during the night. The investigation is thorough and a detective is called in from London, but not even he can find the stone or get a confession out of the person he decides is the prime suspect, and so the stone seems to be lost forever. But that is only the first half of the story. The second half describes how the mystery is finally solved.

This books is not considered a classic just because it is reputed to be the first mystery novel. It has other merits as well.

The whole novel is written in an epistolatory form, first hand accounts by several witnesses and participants in the story, most addressed to and written at the behest of Franklin Blake. The mystery has been resolved when the writing of these epistles and letters takes place, but the writers are only allowed to tell of the events as they saw them unfold. This brilliant stylistic trick of changing narrators as the story unfolds makes the story all the more interesting, as each writer is very much a representative of his or her age, class, gender and environment. It also makes it possible to include some clever foreshadowing that would have been unconvincing in a story that is happening as the epistles are being written. Using first person narrators also inserts some irregularities into the story, caused by different viewpoints and varying levels of narrator credibility. Some of the narrators are, for example, opinionated and sometimes rambling (Betteridge, for example, who tells the first half of the story), while others are succinct and to the point (such as the faithful family lawyer). Some of the narrators, Betteridge especially, have a sense of humour that carries the reader along with it, while other narrators are more to be laughed at.

As with many mystery novels, the story itself requires some suspension of disbelief. There are strange coincidences and quite a lot of melodrama, in addition to (to a modern reader) a somewhat improbable solution to the problem of the theft and the thief’s identity. It abounds in twists and red herrings (even the clever detective falls for some of them), and some of the characters are not what they seem at first.
Unlike many modern mysteries, this one is in no hurry to get solved. The story moves slowly, giving the reader plenty of time and opportunity to try to solve the mystery. While the story itself is enjoyable, it is the narrators and characterisation that provides the real entertainment.

An entertaining, real mystery, a classic of the genre. 5 stars.


Pomgirl said…
I'm really glad that I came across your blog and will keep checking in to see which other authors are reviewed.

I love Wilkie Collins, such an important author in terms of the Victorian 'sensation' novel and the development of the mystery novel.

I also really liked 'Armadale',mostly for its portrayal of the heroine/villainess, Lydia Gwilt.
Anonymous said…
i didnt like this book as much as you did. i reccomend not to read.
Bibliophile said…
Anonymous, you are entitled to your opinion. Tastes differ (and change - I would have hated this book 10 years ago).

I would like to see you back up your statement in a way that will help others make up their mind about whether to read it or not. A simple statement will do, perhaps something like this: I didn’t like The Moonstone because...

Then tell the reader why you don't recommend it.
jenclair said…
I loved The Moonstone and The Woman in White. I've ordered copies for re-reading because it has been so long since I've read them.

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