The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

T.S. Eliot described The Moonstone as ‘the first, the best, and the longest of all detective novels’ and it is hard to disagree with any of that. I read this book many years ago, but was able to enjoy it afresh because I had completely forgotten the solution to the mystery. And what a mystery it is! I lost count of the twists and turns, all of them – to me at least – coming as complete and wonderful surprises; each one logical and convincing in itself yet, as it turns out, only a fraction of the truth. And so you read on, intrigued, to see where the tale will take you next.

The book is enormously long but that, too, is one of its delights, particularly if you are looking for a story to escape into for a long holiday. Another thing to admire is the way the tale is told by many different narrators – I lost count of exactly how many. Each of these characters is well developed and most of them – particularly the first, my favourite the old retainer Betteredge – are very amusing, leavening the mystery with plenty of quiet chuckles along the way. Each narrator has part of the truth but none- until the very end – has all of it; they reminded me of the old story of the blind philosophers trying to examine an elephant: one describes the ear, one the trunk, one a foot, and so on.

The book has one of the first – possibly THE first – professional detective in literature, Sergeant Cuff; a delightful character who, despite his excellent methodology, only uncovers part of the truth. It is also a pleasure, when comparing with modern detective fiction, to note the almost complete absence of violence and sadism – just an initial reference to a historic battle , one suicide and one death, neither of whose details are dwelt on. It is all about character, mystery,  intrigue and confusion.

If T.S. Eliot was right in saying that this was the ‘first’ fully-developed detective novel, then Wilkie Collins deserves enormous credit for not only inventing a whole genre, but also for creating one of its great masterpieces – perhaps, as Eliot claims, ‘the best’. Certainly it is as much of a pleasure to read today as it must have been a century and a half ago. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. There is also a full-length audio book version for those long car journeys.

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About Tim Vicary

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3 Responses to The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

  1. FictionFan says:

    No, no, NO! Inspector Bucket in Bleak House pre-dates Cuff by a decade. The great rule of English literature is if Shakespeare didn’t do it first, then Dickens did! 😉

    • Tim Vicary says:

      Well, you may be right, but the big problem with Bleak House is, like almost all Dickens novels, I gave up halfway through. Great on TV, but impossible to read, with all those grotesque characters and huge plot diversions – for me, anyway. Whereas the Moonstone keeps its focus throughout, and the characters are believable.

  2. Despite T S Eliot’s comment, the usual claimant to be the first detective story (in the English-speaking world) is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), with the alarmingly deductive Monsieur Dupin as the first private eye.

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