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THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins: Book Review

When I write about Golden Oldies, the books are usually a few decades old.  Maybe they were written in the fifties, sixties, or seventies and might have fallen out of favor or off the library’s shelves.  But when I say that The Moonstone was written in the sixties, it’s the 1860s I mean.

Hailed by most literary critics, including T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers, as the “first and best” of the English detective novels, The Moonstone introduced a number of literary conventions that are still followed in this genre.  There’s the large, secluded country estate, the closed circle of suspects, the mysterious foreigners (less frequent now than then), the inept local police, and the least-suspected party who turns out to be the villain.

In brief, the moonstone is an incredibly valuable gem stolen from a Hindu (spelled Hindoo in the novel) statue in India by a corrupt English  army officer.  When he returns home, he is shunned by family and former friends for his ungentlemanly ways, and he determines to get his revenge.  Upon his death, the gem is bequeathed to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her eighteenth birthday.  Although her mother, Lady Verinder, pleads with her not to accept this gift, the young woman is mesmerized by the jewel and insists that she will keep it and indeed will wear it that very night to her birthday dinner.

Although many precautions are taken by Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, and the home’s butler, Gabriel Betteredge, when the morning arrives the moonstone has disappeared from the Indian chest where it was placed by Rachel just before she went to bed. Even more strange than the disappearance is the complete turnaround of emotions by Rachel.  The night of her birthday, it was obvious that she and her cousin Franklin were in love; comes the morning and the jewel’s disappearance, Rachel will no longer speak to her cousin and refuses to help the local police look for the moonstone.

The book has many voices:  Betteredge, the butler; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin who is deeply in love with her; Drusilla Clack, a poor relation of the Verinders and an incorrigible Christian evangelist; and Matthew Bruff, the family’s solicitor.  And it has many unforgettable characters in addition to the narrators:  Rosana  Spearman, a former thief now employed as a second housemaid by Lady Verinder; Geoffrey Abelwhite, another cousin who wishes to marry Rachel; Dr. Candy, the family’s physician who unwittingly plays a major role in the moonstone’s disappearance; and Ezra Jennings, Dr. Candy’s mysterious and disfigured assistant.

And there’s Sergeant Cuff of the London police. Cuff was the prototype of several detectives who followed in his footsteps–Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe coming immediately to mind.  He’s rather odd looking, lean with a face as sharp as a hatchet–(Holmes and his angular profile); he would rather discuss and grow roses than do anything else (Wolfe and his orchids).

Then there’s the opium issue in the novel.  Wilkie Collins was an opium addict; he had begun using it to control back pain but it soon took over his life.  And did not Sherlock Holmes find favor in that drug?

The Moonstone is a mystery that is as fascinating today as it was when it was written. Leave the present for a time and go back to Victorian England.  You’ll enjoy the trip.

You can read more about Wilkie Collins on this web site.

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