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Mystery Monday Review – No Name by Wilkie Collins

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Review by Matt B. (buffalosavage)


Critics and mystery fans consider this one Collins’ third best novel, after The Woman in White (which he himself thought his best) and The Moonstone (still credited as the first detective novel). I found the plot of No Name absorbing, far-fetched but never ridiculous as in Armadale (from which I had to bail about 100 pages in) or The Dead Secret. In fact, I think Collins wanted to showcase his own marvelous ingenuity in creating a plot and spinning out narrative with various techniques.

This novel opens on a domestic Trollopian note. Two grown sisters enjoy life, loved by their rich parents and secure in domestic comfort. But a series of disasters occurs. The sisters find themselves without their parents and because of cruel antique laws, they are revealed as illegitimate and stripped of their parents’ estate. It lands in the avaricious hands of a cousin who refuses to give the girls a hand even though he knows it was the intention of their father to provide for them.

The middle of the novel calls to mind the atmosphere of intrigue in The Woman in White. That is, the passionate sister vows to take back the legacy by any means necessary. She is helped by a Count Fosco-type villain – ruthless, charming, and a delight whenever he’s in the scene. The book is worth reading just for Capt. Wragge. His gift of gab would have been perfect for W.C. Fields. The middle section features a game of wits and skullduggery between two shrewd gamesters.

The last quarter or so does not let up either, so right to the end I was engrossed. He uses exchanges of letters to speed the plot along. He cuffs around middle-class smug respectability and keeping up appearances too. He does not make a big show of cutting down hypocrisy, but he makes sure we know he stands on the side of the individual against mindless conformity and a society too submissive to antique laws, endless red tape, and “the clap-trap morality of the present day,”as he said called it in the preface to Armadale.

Some readers may grumble that Collins isn’t as funny as Dickens and has fewer wise asides than Trollope. Still, I rather like these digressions

Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.


Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness—no matter how contemptible it may be—has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick.


Collins doesn’t do scenery or weather either. It’s hard to know the season sometimes. I think he knew his audience – young, urban, on the way up – enough to know lots of readers just skim that stuff anyway.

In conclusion, I think readers that liked The Woman in White would probably like this one.



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