A few weeks ago, my friend Vallery suggested I read The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first full-length detective novel (Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short-story mysteries in the 1840s). “If you have not read The Moonstone then that should be your first book of 2018. My all time favorite. Up there with Sherlock and Marlowe. Reread it recently in a book group and we all agreed that it reads well, and is surprisingly current.”
Well, I had never read The Moonstone, so I checked it out of the library at the end of December, thinking that I would indeed make it my first review of the new year. That obviously didn’t happen, partly because The Moonstone is very long: over 400 pages of small print. Many were the nights I fell asleep reading the novel; I finally downloaded the Kindle version (free!) and finished it while I was on vacation in late January.
This is not to say that The Moonstone isn’t a good book; I just found it a little tough going at times. The novel opens with the theft of the legendary yellow diamond, which was purloined by an English soldier during a battle between Southern Indians and the British East India Company. The soldier—a cruel and rapacious man—dies years later, leaving the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her eighteenth birthday, and that night, it vanishes from her room in the posh Verinder estate. In an attempt to get at the truth, numerous guests who were present for Rachel’s birthday are asked to write down their personal accounts of what they witnessed.
The first narrator is Gabriel Betteredge, “house-steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder” (Rachel’s mother). Betteredge is a man in his 70s and completely devoted to his employer. He is an astute and often funny narrator, and I found him to be exceedingly good company; his section was my favorite one of the book, and I was a bit disappointed when, after 170 pages, Drusilla Clack took over. (Fortunately, Betteredge does return as an important character later on.) A poor relation of the wealthy Verinder family, Miss Clack is a Christian who feels it is her duty to evangelize to everyone she meets. She is also a faithful member of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, which rescues “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent… abridg[es] them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.”
I was curious about whether or not pawning clothes was a common thing, and it turns out that it was! According to this article, in Victorian times, “Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.” Whether anything like the Conversion Society ever existed is hard to say, but I did appreciate Collins’ satire of both Evangelicals and do-gooders. However, Miss Clack’s prose is rather turgid and overly formal, despite the occasional gem (one of her favorite tracts, on “the sinfulness of dress,” is titled “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons”).
After Miss Clack, we hear from Matthew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest; Ezra Jennings, assistant to a physician; and Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective called in from London to find the missing diamond. Cuff’s arrival is a big deal (“If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unraveling a mystery, there isn’t the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!” exclaims Franklin Blake), though when he shows up, he seems more interested in the estate’s rose garden than in the crime; it’s not difficult to see Cuff as the prototype for every eccentric detective in the annals of mystery fiction.
Considering that it took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish The Moonstone vs. about four hours to polish off current best-seller The Woman in the Window, I can’t say that I’m eager to jump right back into the world of Victorian fiction. But reading The Moonstone in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by how sympathetic Collins was to some of the “underdog” characters in the book, like the odd-looking, racially-ambiguous Ezra Jennings, thief-turned-housemaid Rosanna Spearman, and even the Indian men pursuing their lost treasure (intimating that the diamond should have stayed in India rather than be plundered by a greedy, unpleasant Englishman was probably a pretty progressive stance in the 1860s). The prose can be a bit tough going for someone not used to 19th-century novels, but in general, I agree that The Moonstone does hold up and is well worth reading 150 years after its debut.
Note: If you’re not familiar with Collins’ personal life, read this review for a taste of just how unconventional he was.