The First Mystery Novel and The Curse of Imperialism

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The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins, 1868

Famous for: generally being considered the first mystery novel.

Every family has that one bastard uncle who gets sent to India to imperialize and murders a couple of temple guardians while stealing a legendary diamond from the forehead of a deity. The Moonstone is the story of how that uncle’s dastardly act ruins a budding romance between two cousins who don’t realize they shouldn’t be marrying each other, because humans hadn’t quite figured out genetics yet.

A charming, intelligent aristocratic young lady, Rachel Verinder, inherits the diamond. That diamond is stolen. Confusion and chaos ensue.There’s mystery. There’s intrigue. There’s a full year of cousins not getting married, because of a misunderstanding.

I love it. It’s a great story. Wilkie Collins is a brilliant writer who should be more read on this side of the pond.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may remember that I loved his earlier novel The Woman in White. I love it more than The Moonstone, but The Moonstone is also wonderful. Wilkie Collins (let’s get a puppy and name it Wilkie) does include some social commentary about the propensity of society to completely misjudge character. In The Moonstone British aristocracy embraces scoundrels and rejects the righteous. However, I think his strength as an author is in satirizing not society, but human nature. Like The Woman in White, The Moonstone has multiple narrators. The first is Gabriel Betteredge, who is basically Carson from Downton Abbey, but more charming. When the facts concerning the disappearance of the diamond do not fit with Betteredge’s worldview, he proclaims himself “superior to reason.” I wish fewer people in this country rejected reason when it didn’t fit their worldview, but it is a funny self-declaration.  Betteredge also continually criticizes the female intellect. Meanwhile, the women around him are demonstrably more intelligent than he is and have a far better understanding of the mystery of the Moonstone.

A second unreliable narrator appears in the character of Drusilla Clack, a sanctimonious spinster who constantly criticizes dear Rachel, quite clearly because she is jealous of her. It takes some, but not a great deal, of subtlety as a reader to pick up on Collin’s jokes at the expense of his narrators. If you love an unreliable narrator and the not-too-difficult puzzle of figuring out when an author is being facetious, this is the book for you.

Collins’ characters are delightfully and hilariously flawed. Rachel is a gender-bending heroine who just can’t do her gender roles well enough for some people, but is loved all the more by others for her individuality. I found the whole thing quite charming and well worth reading and rereading. However, I prefer The Woman in White. There’s more drama in The Woman in White. I found myself more invested in that plot, than this one, simply because the location of a diamond does not concern me as much as the well-being of humans.

You might like The Moonstone if:

  • you love mysteries
  • you like unreliable narrators
  • you like to laugh with the author while he mocks his characters’ foibles

You might not like The Moonstone if:

  • you lack patience. It’s quite long and the mystery drags on a bit before unfolding almost entirely within the last 100 pages.

Final Thoughts: I admire Wilkie Collins. He has a unique style that is intriguing, entertaining, humorous and a bit challenging. If you haven’t tried anything by him, you should. My favorite thing about him is his tendency to demonstrate that the most worthy characters in his melange are the ones who are most harshly judged by society.

 

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