The Moonstone

Or, Rich People Lose Things (The Moonstone)

The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins, 1868) is a long novel. It’s really long. It took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish. Okay, I’ve messed up the introduction, let’s try that again:

The Moonstone is a mystery novel widely considered (read: T.S. Elliot says so on the back of my copy) to one of the ur-modern mystery novels. It tells the story of the theft of an ancient Indian diamond–the titular Moonstone–and the efforts by several different parties to get it back, including the original guardians of the gem and the diamond’s current ‘owners’.

Yes, before you ask, Indians are mystical in this novel. It’s a very old book and we’re talking about an ancient gem of great spiritual importance. It’s a bit like watching Temple of Doom: You feel kind of uncomfortable because it’s so blatantly offensive, but try and enjoy it regardless because it’s otherwise really quite fun. But this was written before it was tongue-in-cheek to have priests chant “Kali Ma, Kali Ma!” while ripping out human hearts. Actually, that wasn’t exactly applauded either. Anyway. If only Collins did the more modern thing of making up a country and placing it in some vague place on the globe. It’s an old book. I should read more history so I can work out the correct level of outrage I should have, but I gave the novel the benefit of the doubt because the main focus is on the rich English people.

The story is told from multiple perspectives in the form of a series of witness statements requested by one of the lead characters in an attempt to try and document the mystery. This immediately brings to mind novels like Dracula, which apply a similar gimmick to great effect. The Moonstone doesn’t do a bad job of it either.

The novel opens with a newspaper clipping recounting how the Moonstone ends up in the Verinder family’s possession. Then, via testimony from head servant Gabriel Betteredge, goes on to explain how it falls into the Verinder daughter Rachel’s hands by inheritance, and then how the diamond is–inevitably–lost. The remaining ten billion pages of the novel are centred around attempts at recovering the diamond. Celebrated inspector Sergeant Cuff is asked to investigate the crime, and quickly proves to be amazing. There’s a lot of speculation thrown about, and Rachel herself comes under scrutiny after going into a deep depression. For unknown reasons she shuns her would-be love (and cousin, simpler times) Franklin Blake, who leaves the country in dejection. But he’ll be back, don’t you worry.

Obviously, almost everyone important in this novel is rich or in a comfortable position. They wouldn’t have a diamond to lose otherwise. It’s a bit like reading Pride and Prejudice, but this novel actually acknowledges that poor people exist–even if it also suggests they’re a little more simple than their richer counterparts. It also has a–hopefully–tongue-in-cheek view on women, with multiple characters declaring men superior in an over-the-top, probably-twirling-their-moustaches fashion. The men doing this are old, so it’s tempting to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say he’s being progressive in an ironic fashion… But I don’t know enough to make a judgement either way.

Well, all that said, not all poor people are stigmatised. As Wikipedia (that amazing resource for book reviewers with terrible memories) has reminded me, the majority of the Verinder servants aren’t exactly rich, and they’re portrayed very sympathetically–with an exception, we still need a servant suspect for this to be a real mystery novel after all. But still, while head servant Gabriel is definitely of a lower station than his mistresses, he’s never talked down to, and is treated as an equal when talking to most other characters. Score one for Collins!

Barring the outdated views on Indians, the poor, and women–which we hope are ironic jokes–what’s left? Well, I’m pleased to say that there’s a solid mystery once you eliminate the uncomfortable bits.

Looked at from a distance, mystery novels have the same sort of structure: Some stuff happens, then a crime shakes things up. The rest of the novel deals with the unavoidable twists and complications in the investigation, before wrapping up with the mystery either solved or declared unsolvable. The Moonstone is no exception in this regard. Some of the twists you’ll see coming a mile off, but in my opinion the important twists are fairly surprising, especially to a relative beginner to the genre such as myself. Given that the novel helped construct many of the tropes that would hold the mystery genre up for the next hundred years, it’s very much a case of my being late to the party.

The writing itself isn’t difficult to read, even if it drags on. Everyone in this novel talks in paragraphs. If this sounds familiar, it’s because everyone in Pride and Prejudice talks in paragraphs too. It just seems to be a thing people used to do until the 20th century. Or perhaps authors were just that much more loquacious back then. In any case, the characters’ long monologues in The Moonstone do not radiate the same level of grandiosity or wit as in Pride and Prejudice. But then again, everyone is that much richer in the Austen novel. Maybe more money just makes you much talk gooder.

The characters develop! Yes, in a mystery novel! And by ‘characters’, I mean the hero and heroine. The only development most other characters get is finding the humility to begrudgingly admit their mistakes and be good sports about it. Meanwhile, Rachel goes from cheery girl, to utter wreck, to… Well, why spoil it? Franklin goes from all-over-the-place-but-well-intentioned, to focused and intent on winning Rachel’s good graces by recovering her gem. Sergeant Cuff goes between being a police officer and being a gardener several times. Now that’s some development.

One little thing that I thought was neat: There’s a half-Indian character in this novel. I can’t tell you how rare this is. Okay, I can: It’s rare. I haven’t read nearly as much as most people, but this is literally the first time I’ve come across a fellow mixed race Indian-Englishman in fiction. He’s unfortunately described as being particularly unattractive and is highly disrespected and mistrusted, but we can’t all win the ‘good looks’ lottery like myself. But he’s given a solid character and I liked his subversion of the ‘foreign equals dangerous’ theme which runs through the novel. Over the course of writing this review, Collins has started to come across to me as a little more progressive than I would have expected from a 19th century author. Some characters even outright say they consider Indians their equals–although others believe said Indians would kill them without a second thought if they thought it necessary, due to their, er, culture of murder.

“In the country those men came from, they care just as much about killing a man, as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe.”

Woof. This is a weird novel. Let’s hope that’s just the character’s opinion and not Collins’.

I personally enjoyed the book, but I could easily understand if people don’t want to spend an age reading a mystery novel that would bore them by virtue of having very, very obvious twists by today’s standards, or if they don’t want to roll their eyes every four or five pages at the social standards of yestercentury. In the end, I would say only pick up The Moonstone if you’re a mystery connoisseur or psychic: You’ve already seen it all before, so you hopefully won’t mind seeing it all again.


P.S. It isn’t really that long, but like Pride and Prejudice, the novel is not afraid to be verbose for the sake of verbosity.

P.P.S. I have discovered that a novel told via the medium of letters or newspaper clippings is called an epistolary novel, and the form was pretty popular at the time! So there you go.

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