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Mystery Monday Review – The Moonstone

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Historians of the whodunit called this well-known novel the first mystery. The central crime is a theft, with a killing only near the end, but the novel introduced hallmarks that the genre later became famous for: plot and action over characterization or theme; the shrewd sowing of clues; the wacky detective; the amateur sleuths making a hash of the investigation; a suspenseful working up to the exciting reveal.

One attraction of the novel is that it begins in the genial voice of an old house-steward. He is the kind of the reader who reads over and over one book, Robinson Crusoe, like Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has The Last Days of Pompeii. Then the second part is a completely different voice, that of religious hypocrite spinster. The rest of the novel is also told in eight other first-person voices, showing Collins’ willingness to challenge himself in his craft.

Another plus: Collins consciously wrote with female readership in mind, like Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner. Mystery luminary Dorothy Sayers said he was “one of the very few male writers who can write realistically about women without prejudice and about sex without exaggeration.”

The downsides are three and do not outweigh the pleasure of reading. The plot hinges on an improbable event. It is rather slow at the two-thirds point. It lacks a really strong female character and a rip-roaring villain. So no Marian Halcombe or Count Fosco as in The Woman in White. No Magdalen Vanstone, no Captain Horatio Wragge as in No Name.

The Moonstone was written when Collins was at his peak, the late 1860s, after The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and before Man and Wife (1870). After 1870, his health suffered and he became opioid-dependent. Though he never wrote a barking bad novel, his work suffered and his later novels are read only by hardcore readers like us.

Like The Woman in White, this novel was immensely popular in its own day, the late 1860s. It lives in the present day, with over 50,000 ratings and almost 3,000 reviews at Goodreads. The Moonstone has survived because of discerning readers like us, who read for the sheer pleasure of it.




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