The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

It wasn’t planned, but 2014 has turned out to be the year of Wilkie Collins for me. He’s the only writer that I read multiple works by this year.

At the beginning of the year I read The Woman in White and his short story “The Frozen Deep” for the Wilkie In Winter read-along hosted by The Estella Society. Last month The Moonstone was the November selection for the new mystery book group I’m in. We wanted to go back to the beginning of the mystery genre and The Moonstone is considered by most to be the first mystery novel written in English.

A huge diamond called the Moonstone is stolen from a Hindu temple during a battle in India. The English solider who thieved the stone murders to get it. Three Hindu Brahmans are charged with getting the sacred stone back. The English “gentleman” returns to England and is shunned by his society. The stone is cursed. He wills the stone to his niece, to be given to her when she turns 18. On the night of her birthday party the stone goes missing. Three Indian men were recently in the vicinity…did they steal it back? The story is told through multiple perspectives in the form of letters various characters write, upon request, to tell what they know about the diamond and who did what when before, during, and/or after the birthday party. As the story is pieced together characters weave in and out of one another’s reports.

A Side Note on the Importance of Heat when Conducting a Used Book Sniff Test:

I went to a few library sales hoping to find a copy of The Moonstone, but didn’t have any luck. A fellow mystery group member beat me to a copy at one of the sales. I eventually found a nice 1948 hardcover edition by Doubleday & Company at the Book Barn. The book was in their unheated literature building (only the main building has heat, which makes for quick browsing of some genres in colder weather). I did a standard sniff test on the book and it passed. No stinky rotting glue or former chain smoker smells. In retrospect, it turns out that heat is a significant factor to be taken into consideration when performing a thorough sniff test.

Stinky book

When I got the book home I spent some some time looking through the illustrations by William Sharp and then the book went on my TBR pile. It would be a couple weeks before I picked up the book to read it. In that time, the book was sufficiently warmed. When I started reading it, everything was fine for the first dozen pages or so. After that I occasionally noticed a bit of a musty smell when I turned a page. I was enjoying Gabriel Betteredge’s story and kept on reading.

By page 25 or so I started developing itchy eyes and the musty smell morphed into a stink. Unlike Betteredge who enjoyed his dirty and dogeared copy of Robinson Crusoe that “exhaled a strong odour of stale tobacco as he turned over the leaves,” the stench of my book was nasty. I couldn’t go on reading this book. Over the next few days I picked it up a several times and read for a few minutes here and there, but with the book group meeting looming around the corner I knew I’d never finish the book in time under these conditions

Just when I was going to throw in the towel and go buy a brand new edition of the novel, I  remembered I’d downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg back when I read “The Frozen Deep.” So I dug out my trusty old Kobo and charged it overnight. The next morning I started flying through the story.

Lesson learned: sniff tests are best conducted when the book under consideration has reached and maintains a temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does this diamond make my waist look smaller?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone and the mystery book group had a great time talking about it as well. It’s one of those books that may seem long at first but then gets better as you read on and is over before you know it. I loved the multiple points of view and some of the characters are a hoot! Yes, its a little challenging to get into if you’re not used to reading 19th century writing and some may get a bit impatient with the verbiage, but the plot and the delightful characters are so worth any effort it may take. I’d even go so far as to recommend this novel over The Woman in White if a reader had to pick only one Wilkie Collins to read (but ultimately you must read both!).

Hello, Sailor!

The Moonstone contains many elements of the mystery novel that makes it a joyful frolic to read. And read it with the understanding that most of these elements were not yet cliched back when Collins wrote it, although some were used in adventure tales or gothic novels. There’s a curse, murder, theft, drugs, addiction, disease, disguises, trap doors, wills, inheritance, stake outs, and red herrings. The suspicion of foreigners as well as racial, gender, and class stereotypes are used and upended. There’s a celebrated detective with an incongruous hobby, bumbling local police, religious zealots, posers, a work-a-holic lawyer, and willful women. Its very much a locked room mystery, an English country house robbery that also includes some city scenes. The book has everything, including a crime scene reconstruction and banter about the subjective/objective. There’s even quicksand!

In his preface Collins wrote that he wanted to trace the influence of character on circumstances, which I tried to keep in mind while reading. There are some unbelievable aspects of the novel that wouldn’t fly by today’s standards, but nothing that ruins the reading experience.

There is much in this book that is relevant today. One surprising scene involved memory loss. Dementia and diseases like Alzheimer’s are in the news today like they’re a new thing. I was touched by a scene where a character who is struggling with memory loss is interviewed. The way Collins portrays this character, with such compassion and understanding, resonated with several of us in the book group who’ve had loved ones with similar challenges.

Overall, The Moonstone is a great book. There’s a reason its a classic. Go read it!

Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone
First published 1868

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