Mr. Edgar Allen Poe and Mr. Conan Doyle have been awarded an honour they do not deserve. The First Mystery Novel Trophy belongs to none other than Mr. Wilkie Collins. While Collins is casually referred to as the first mystery novel writer, I think he should be as well-known and revered as Doyle or Christie for his impact on the genre.
Because, let's face it: The Moonstone is a far more coherent mystery than anything August Dupin ever encountered in any of his homicidal monkey hunts, and the story was published a full twenty years before Sherlock Holmes made his famous entrance.
I dipped into a little Wilkie Collins years ago, and found myself thoroughly unimpressed; at the time, I found him a watered-down version of his mentor, Charles Dickens, and, possibly because of general iconoclastic orneriness, I don't actually like Charles Dickens. Then this whole Real Life thing happened, and suddenly, I found myself having to take additional rest and yet unable to read books. Audiobooks to the rescue! And what would be better than to return to some of those verbose Victorian classics? I've started chugging through such dusty gems as Armadale, Vanity Fair, and The Moonstone.
I read a lot of mysteries--basically any series I follow can be loosely placed into that genre-- so believe me when I say that The Moonstone is a mystery, and a relatively cleverly drawn one at that. More importantly, it contains an impressive number of elements that would become the template for the Golden Age mysteries to follow.
The story begins many years before, when a wicked adventurer, while in India, stole an iconic yellow diamond from its sacred hiding place. But the diamond, called the Moonstone because of its religious significance, is not an entirely auspicious gift: lore warns that the Moonstone brings terrible misfortune to its owner. The owner keeps the stone for many years, then decides to utilize its evil gifts to enact revenge upon his sister, Lady Verinder. Upon his death, he bequeaths the stone to Lady Verinder's daughter upon her 18th birthday.
The crime, of course, occurs at a country house party. Aided by her mother, the vivacious Rachel Verinder is preparing to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. Franklin Blake, a young and rather careless gentleman, has come back from abroad to deliver the stone to Rachel. After a sufficient amount of foreshadowing and sinister foreboding, the family awakes to find that the Moonstone has disappeared. Oh noes! Who has stolen the stone? Who is responsible? The devoted and cantankerous steward, Gabriel Betteredge? The overly familiar Dr. Candy? The handsome, insouciant, and heavily indebted Franklin Blake? The sanctimonious Godfrey Ablewhite? The pious spinster, Drusilla Clack? What of the servant girl Rosanna Spearman and her suspicious actions? What of the stubborn silence of Rachel Verinder herself? Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard is determined to uncover the mystery, and the characters involved quickly discover that "Detective Fever" is surprisingly contagious.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was its structure. The story is told by a series of first-person narrators, ostensibly because of a request to record their experiences for posterity. Collins has a true gift for writing amusingly quirky characters. The only two people I found truly tiresome were the stiff-lipped Rachel and the oh-so-romantic and handsome Franklin Blake. I found myself warming to almost all of the other narrators, from the crotchety Betteredge and his simple faith in the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe to the quiet tragic words of the physician's assistant, Ezra Jennings. Although your mileage may vary, I even warmed to the meddling Miss Clack. Although she is offensive and rather repellent, I sympathise with her tendency to use her officious religious pretensions to give herself a sense of self-worth and shield herself from her ugliness and loneliness in a world where women are valued by ability to adorn the environment of their men. Her pathetic adoration and her inability to recognize her romantic feelings for the handsome Ablewhite are truly pitiable. My favourite narrator of the bunch was the dusty and pragmatic lawyer, Mr. Bruff. He lends a surprising dry sarcasm to the story while still managing to represent the other characters with a sometimes unwonted courtesy. In fact, the various narrators' hilariously characterizations of one another is one of the most amusing aspects of the book.
However, there was another aspect to the story, above and beyond the entertaining mystery of the ill-fated stone, that I absolutely adored. I have long been a fan of the works of the late great Elizabeth Peters, and her Amelia Peabody series is one of my absolute favourites. The books tend to contain a lot of in-jokes to other works in the period, from the great gothic novels to the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. However, until I started on my Wilkie Collins binge, I had no idea that several of the Amelia Peabody books are hilarious and creative spoofs of Wilkie Collins. For example, Allan Armadale, the man who disappears in Curse of the Pharoahs, is a direct reference to Allan Armadale of the eponymous novel. Amelia's oft-repeated phrase of "detective fever" is a shout-out to Betteredge of The Moonstone. The rather pointless little scene in Last Camel Died at Noon in which a child sees visions by looking into a dark liquid poured into the palms of his hands makes rather more sense when I realized it was a reference to a very similar scene in The Moonstone. Last but certainly not least, the indefatigable Inspector Cuff that Amelia and Emerson run into in Deeds of the Disturber is none other than the Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone. (Apparently, he received a promotion after the events recorded within this book.) The repeated references to his ambition of growing roses in Dorking are rather more amusing when The Moonstone is taken into account, as are his reactions during his adventures with the perilously persipcacious Rameses.
Overall, The Moonstone gets an ungrudging five stars from me, and not just because of its illumination of a bunch of in-jokes in one of my favourite series. Despite his hilarious and quirky narrators, Collins manages to work in some interesting observations of society and status within the narrative. Last but not least, this book's enormous influence on the mystery genre alone would earn it five stars in my book.
Thank you, Wilkie Collins, for infecting so many with the dreaded detective fever!