The Moonstone

Amazon had a sale a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of books for $0.99. Five of them were classics published by Oxford World’s Classics, i.e., by Oxford University Press; and I figured that at $0.99 it was worth grabbing them just for the chance that the production would be better than the average low-price public domain conversion.

One of them was The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. I’d heard the name of the book, and I remembered rather vaguely having heard that it was worth reading, and the brief description on the Amazon page indicated that it was a mystery, the first detective novel in the English language…and I thought, why not?

Why not, indeed. The book, let me tell you, is a hoot. It is great fun, and I enjoyed every bit of it.

Written in 1868 as a weekly serial, it concerns an enormous diamond, the Moonstone, once stolen by a Muslim prince from a Hindu temple in India. The keepers of the temple swore to recover it, it is said, but it remained in the strongroom of the prince and his descendants until it was removed by an Englishman named Herncastle. From him it passed, on his death, to his niece, Rachel Verinder…and with that the cat is among the pigeons. The stone is stolen (of course; who could doubt it) and the story takes off in earnest.

Collins was a contemporary and great friend of Charles Dickens, and like him had a gift for creating odd and memorable characters; but unlike him, he also had a gift for making them seem realistic. Mr. Pickwick is an outstanding and memorable character, Sam Weller is an outstanding and memorable character, Nicholas Nickleby is an outstanding and memorable character…but none of them are the least bit likely. Collins’ characters, in this book at least, seem altogether likely.

And thanks to Collins’ plan for the novel, we have the opportunity to see all of them fully rounded. The book is told in the form of a series of narratives, each by a different eyewitness, each of which brings the story forward. Thus, we see each of the major characters through others’ eyes, and often enough through their own eyes as well. The difference between the various views of a single character is often striking, and especially when you can compare how they present themselves with how others see them.

My favorite of the characters, and the narrator of the longest segment of the book, is Gabriel Betteredge, an old family retainer of the Verinder family. Devoted to his ladyship and her family, possessed of his own homespun and rather eccentric philosophy, and utterly dependent for his personal stability on his pipe and his worn copy of Robinson Crusoe, he turns out to be an excellent observer of events, a not particularly good judge of individuals, and the one character who is, within, as others see him to be without. I am perfectly delighted to make his acquaintance.

As a detective story, the tale is adequate, if a bit slow paced—not that I minded. I might as well say that the essential point of the plot, the dreadful secret on which the whole plot turns, struck me as being too completely absurd. It would not have seemed so in 1868, however, so I didn’t let it bother me.

Highly recommended. I often find Dickens long-winded, grotesque, and tedious; Collins seems to be just to my taste.

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