Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Moonstone

Literary historians credit Edgar Allen Poe with inventing the modern mystery story, and that's why one of the major genre awards is the Edgar.  The credit for the first modern mystery novel, though goes to Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone.  Perhaps if he had a less silly-sounding first name, there would be an award named after him.

I'm generally not a fan of Victorian novels.  They're usually too sentimental for my taste, and they have a tendency to slip into sesquipedalian loquaciousness, which also doesn't appeal to me (this sentence aside).  That's probably why I hadn't read The Moonstone until my classic literature RAL chose it.  I enjoyed it, but I also think I could have spent another 30 years of mystery fandom without meeting Gabriel Betteredge

Gabriel is Lady Verinder's steward, a man very sure of his, and everyone else's, place in the world.  Now semi-retired, he ruled the lower servants, believed in the near-infallibility of his mistress, found the answers to all questions in his worn copy of Robinson Crusoe, and he narrates the set-up and the crime.  While Lady Verinder plans a dinner party for her daughter Rachel's birthday, her two nephews - do-gooder Geoffrey Abelwhite and dilettante Franklin Blake - propose marriage and are rejected.  Rachael receives a large, allegedly cursed diamond, wears it to dinner, and wakes up the next morning to find it's been stolen.  A few days later, a housemaid suspected of the crime commits suicide by throwing herself in the "Shivering Sands."

I found Gabriel's narrative moderately amusing but not particularly compelling.  Instead, The Moonstone came to life when Collins brought in other narrators, including Rachel's poor relation Miss Clack, her mother's solicitor Matthew Bruff, physician Ezra Jenkins, and Franklin Blake.  Covering the year following the crime, these narratives piece together motives and bits of evidence which may or may not clear the suicidal housemaid.  It's not Gabriel's fault.  He was saddled with the role of Basil Exposition and Collins should have set up the crime more efficiently.  Collins may have also found some of the other characters more entertaining to write (Miss Clack in particular), and he feels like he's having more fun solving the crime than setting it up.  I figured out "whodunnit" maybe a few pages sooner than I'd like, but on the whole I'd rate The Moonstone as an average-to-good mystery.

The story might not stand out, but The Moonstone's influence on later novels is clear.  Collins introduced or popularized the locked room mystery and the amateur detective; the multiple POV section foreshadows several of Christie's novels (including Murder on the Orient Express and Sparkling Cyanide), Jim Thompson's The Kill Off, and Marcia Muller's recent and compelling Locked In; and the police detective's decision to retire and grow roses calls to mind Hercule Poirot and his vegetable marrows.   The Moonstone may not have survived 144 years on its story alone, but the grandfather of the cosy mystery is worth reading. 

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