Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

An English Mystery Novel (with opium!)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is considered to be the first detective novel (although I have heard of several other novels also labeled as such).   Even if (to this modern reader) it can seem at times to be a little too convoluted, with a lot of bait-and-switch moves and classic red-herrings,  most of it is great fun.

The novel depicts events over several years regarding the Moonstone, a large yellow-ish diamond that is the center of all the mystery.  It is told from several different perspectives, and introduces some narrators that could be considered biased or unreliable.  I think that part of the reason that the book was such a sensation is because of this style- we read many different perspectives from unique characters, and then find out that some of them were clueless, actively lied, or were “under the influence” (yes, I mean opium).

Ms. Rachel Verinder inherits the Moonstone from an eccentric and disliked uncle who spent much of his life in India.  How he got the diamond is never revealed, but it is apparent even from the beginning that those means were likely dishonest – three Indians arrive in England to retrieve it.  Rachel, ignoring her mothers advice to lock up the diamond, flaunts it at her birthday party.  Inevitably, the Moonstone goes missing afterward.  The rest of the novel is the year following the theft, told by many characters and in such a way as to slowly reveal to the reader the events of that fateful night.

Most of the novel is fun to read.  I can see why, when it was written, it was a big hit.  Not only do you have a clever mystery, an exotic Indian diamond, opium use, romance, etc… but it is written in that unique style.  Towards the end of the novel it does get to be a bit much – “oh, so he really is a bad/good guy!”, “oh, so that scene earlier really had nothing to do with the mystery!”, “a ha! he was innocent the entire time!”- it becomes increasingly ridiculous and sensational.  I feel that much of the emotional scenes, mystery, and drama could have been cleared up very quickly with a few honest five-minute conversations.  But where would be the fun in that?

A fun mystery to read if you don’t mind a bit of over-the-top plotting and characters- it is what makes it so charming.

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