Book Review : The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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“Betteredge,” says Mr. Franklin, “I have been to the lawyer’s about some family matters; and, among other things, we have been talking of the loss of the Indian Diamond, in my aunt’s house in Yorkshire, two years since. Mr. Bruff thinks as I think, that the whole story ought, in the interests of truth, to be placed on record in writing -- and the sooner the better.”
Excerpt from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Normally I would put a picture of the cover here, but I can't find the cover online and it is rather boring anyway. I will link to this LiveJournal post on Bad Moonstone Covers instead. And also the text of The Moonstone on Project GutenbergSo begins a convoluted tale concerning how the mysterious and eponymous diamond came to be briefly in the possession of Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday at her family's large estate. The jewel soon disappears and the list of suspects is large - one of the servants is acting strangely, various cousins have their own agendas, and even Rachel's mother has her own reasons for not wanting Rachel to have the jewel. And what part do the trio of strange Indian jugglers lurking in the shrubbery play?

Enter Sergeant Cuff, famous detective, aided by the Verinder's head servant and "detective fever" sufferer Gabriel Betteredge. Can the two of them crack the case?

Written in 1868, The Moonstone seems very modern in technique if not setting. The story is told as if written after the fact by several narrators, each with their own style and outlook on life. This is an amusing albeit meandering way to tell a story, the way the narrators describe each other and their interpretation of events provides for some entertaining contradictions. I especially enjoyed the chapters related by a distant relative who is oblivious that everyone else finds her extremely unpleasant.

The Moonstone is often cited as the first detective novel, and I can certainly see how that claim could be made - the isolated setting, the list of improbable suspects with hidden motives, the eccentric yet skilled detective, bumbling local police, and unlikely conclusion of a classic whodunnit are all on display. But The Moonstone's age and certain aspects of the setting also tie it strongly to the gothic novel tradition. Bottomless quicksand, curses, madness, ominous thunderstormsDoes a flash of lightning reveal a shocking surprise? What do you think? and strange country folk all make appearances.

The result is a interesting hodgepodge of styles. It is even fairly meta, with some of the narrators commenting on how exciting it is to be caught up in a compelling mystery. Although entirely too long and taking ages to get to the point, I really enjoyed The Moonstone and would recommend it to fans of mystery.