Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ is widely held to have set the precedent for the modern detective novel, and I have to agree that Collins’ skill in intriguing readers, though once pioneering and innovative, has set the standard for this genre through its inability to be bettered on the grounds of reader satisfaction and enjoyment.
The Moonstone certainly doesn’t have the ingenuity of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, kidnappings or jewel robberies, and if outlined to an onlooker the means, motive and opportunity for the crime are relatively straightforward. In fact, over the course of the story we are not introduced to any new suspects, not even a stormy-browed stranger who turns out to be a secret philanthropist and a complete red herring. Collins doesn’t even opt for Christie’s classic ‘denouement’, an all-encompassing revelation which finally illuminates the mind-boggling and frustrating dark in which the reader has hitherto been placed. Indeed, Collins chooses to give the reader pieces of the puzzle along the way which are not contradicted later on.
Revelations come at every turn – and this is where he shows his mastery of the genre.
By drip-feeding the reader not just with clues but with concrete evidence and solutions to various parts of the story of the crime, Collins manages to keep us hooked for a whopping 458 pages, and a good few months for Victorians reading the serialised novel in Charles Dickens’ magazine ‘All Year Round’. I’m pretty sure a Poirot of this magnitude would cause serious mental health damage.
Though the narrative of the crime is simple, the plot of the novel itself is packed with intrigue and excitement, moving back and forth between Yorkshire, London and India with frequently changing narrators to add the spice of variety. And yet ‘The Moonstone’ isn’t devoid of emotional investment – indeed, our long stay with Gabriel Betteredge, the first narrator, enables us to fall in love with this loyal old man, and his foibles become charming when they are compared with Mrs Clack’s ‘well-intentioned’ Bible-bashing. We can’t help but admire the determined if often baffled Franklin Blake, Ezra Jennings wins our sympathy, respect and admiration, and when wilful Rachel Verinder’s bold conduct is eventually explained, so does she.
In all, a compelling, enjoyable and satisfying read.