"The first,..and the best of modern English detective novels!"
- T.S. Eliot
If you are looking for a classic detective mystery novel in its purest form, The Moonstone is definitely the book to read! It is a brilliantly written detective novel by Wilkie Collins in 1868. It has all the elements of the genre of detective fiction as we know it today - a crime, a list of suspects in a sprawling mansion in the English countryside, a brilliant detective, and even a butler. Sherlock Holmes won't be created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle until 20 years later. I read it because in P.D. James' "Talking About Detective Fiction" she mentions The Moonstone as the definitive original detective story in the English language.
Photo from www.walterscheib.com
The Moonstone is about a fabulous yellow Diamond that was taken from an Indian shrine by an English soldier John Herncastle and later brought back to England. After his death, his niece Rachel Verinder inherits it on her 18th birthday. Excited about her new possession, Rachel wears it on her dress during the evening of the dinner party at her family's estate in Yorkshire for all the guests to admire. That very night the Diamond is stolen and everyone becomes a suspect. A renowned detective, Sergeant Cuff, is called in by Mrs. Verinder to recover the lost Diamond. In the novel the Diamond is said to be worth 30,000 pounds. A smeared door, a soiled nightgown, mysterious Indian jugglers, opium, and hypnotism are just some of the elements the reader will encounter.
Wilkie Collins Photo from Wikipedia
Wilkie Collins is probably more known for his novel The Woman in White which he wrote in 1860 before writing The Moonstone, and which I also thoroughly enjoyed. However, from both novels we can see some common themes. At the center of bothstories is a romance, where our hero strives to get to the bottom of a mystery for the sake of the woman he loves. Both are also epistolary novels, with each character's personality coming out strongly and clearly from their respective narratives.
I believe Mr. Wilkie Collins' brilliance exhibits itself not just by being the first to conceptualize a book that will eventually launch a genre but also by the strength and solidity of the characters! Why, I almost hated Ms. Clack, one of the guests at the dinner party that night, for her self-righteousness as i read her narrative and was about to put the book down by sheer irritation! From a purely entertainment perspective, the story might progress too slowly and lengthily for some readers. However, the inner thoughts of the characters, though they take up some length, make them solid and strong, and probably contributes to The Moonstone as a great work from a literary standpoint.
The Herncastle Family Tree (Make a print-out to help keep track of the characters.)
If you plan to read The Moonstone, you might want to print out the Herncastle Family Tree here, which I found useful as I was reading the novel to help keep track of the characters. I couldn't find any on the net so I took some time to recreate it based on the narrative of Mr. Betteredge, the butler.
Still not inpired to read the book? See the movie! Here is a production by BBC Masterpiece Theatre.