Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is considered the first detective novel that established the ground rules of modern detective novels. Though I agree with this statement, I think Agatha Christie is still the reigning queen of the genre.

Published in 1868, it is an epistolary novel about the missing of a yellow diamond called Moonstone, which was originally placed on the forehead of the Hindu god of the moon statue, located at a Hindu temple in India. The diamond protected by three hereditary guardians from Brahmin caste, who do not hesitate to perform crime, even murder if needed, in order to save it. One day a British army officer - a rogue named Colonel Herncastle - stole it from the temple in a looting during the Siege of Seringapatam, and brought it to England. His life has never been in peace ever since.

Colonel Herncastle's sister is a Lady Verinder, who disliked her notorious brother. Furious with his sister's rudeness and humiliation, he took an unusual way of revenge, by bequeathing the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, when she turns eighteen. Several days before the birthday party, three Indian jugglers come to the town, and even ask permission to perform at the Verinders' on the night of the birthday party. They get to see Rachel, who, excited by the inheritance, pins the Moonstone on her blouse. That night Rachel keeps the diamond in an Indian cabinet in her parlour. The next day they finds the cabinet empty, the diamond is missing. They hire the best detective to investigate the case, but, despite of the progresses Sergeant Cuff has made, Lady Verinder stops the investigation altogether, as it has somewhat bothered Rachel. And so the mystery is left unsolved.

Two years from the unfortunate event, Franklin Blake - Rachel's cousin - who was tasked of bringing the Moonstone to Rachel at her birthday night, takes initiative to keep a neat record of everything that had happened from the moment they got the Moonstone, to the moment when the mystery is eventually solved. He compiles narrative of persons involved, reports, letters, and diary, to create a complete and true history of the Moonstone mystery. And so, that is what we read as this novel.

I was in love with the novel from the first chapter, which is Gabriel Betteredge's narrative. Betteredge is the Verinders' chief steward (butler and housekeeper), a pleasant, humorous, warm hearted old man who loves Defoe's Robinson Crusoe so much, that the book becomes his 'bible' and sole consolation in life. He is the sole reason why I kept reading this book. I loved his narrative, it shows his wittiness, loving nature, and loyalty towards the Verinders. How I've wished that he'd keep the pen to himself for the rest of the book, and I might have automatically granted it five stars, no matter how the story unfolds. However, Collins didn't agree with me. He chose, instead, to trust the next narration to a hypocrite girl (a Pharisee of modern world) who I despised! After that, several other persons alternately took over the pen, and that, I think, was when I took first of the five stars I've stored for the book. I love continuity in a book. Two narration is still okay, but NOT more than that, please!!

The other half star I reluctantly took away is from the opium experiment. I don't know much about the side effect of opium, but I think the opium plot involving Franklin Blake is quite lame and absurd.

Apart from those two objections of mine, The Moonstone promised to be an enjoyable Victorian story, with the oriental superstition, the mysterious swamp, the social injustice leading to tragedy, the romance - though it would be better if the heroine isn't that spoilt, selfish, insensible as Rachel. But yeah... Collins isn't Dickens.

All in all, I must say that I'm quite disappointed. It started very nicely, but ended disappointingly. I don't know how it supposed to "establish the ground rules of modern detective novels" if the detective was shunned before he could do his job, and the amateur who took over is head over heels in love, which means he's not clearheaded, and thus, unfit for the task. It is a good Victorian novel, but not as a detective novel. Trust that to Agatha Christie only!

Final rating: 3,5 / 5


  1. cogent points... i read this quite a while ago, and in spite of enjoying it at the time, your post raises objections that i find myself agreeing with... it really doesn't represent the modern detective tale very much, does it?

    1. Indeed - I'm relieved our modern detective stories didn't follow much of this book's style!

  2. Super review.

    I recently read Collins for the first time. I have only read Woman in White however. That book also had multiple narrators but I thought that it worked well.

    1. Thanks, Brian.
      Yes, Woman in White has multiple narrators too, but - if I remember correctly - they are people who directly involved in the case, and the number isn't big, is that right? I only hope Collins other novels would be at least as good as Woman in White!


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