Friday, June 25, 2010

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

the moonstone
wilkie collins
c. 1868
494 pages
completed 6/24/2010

read for: wilkie collins mini challenge, penguin classics, 1001 books

*may contain spoilers*

I address these lines - written in India - to my relatives in England.

On her eighteenth birthday, Miss Rachel Verinder is surprised by a gift left to her by her late uncle Herncastle, a man mostly cut off from his relatives. The gift is an unusually large yellow diamond known as the Moonstone which she wears pinned to her dress throughout her birthday party. By the next morning, the Moonstone is gone. In a series of accounts written from different perspectives, those who were present on the night in question or those who had dealings with certain individuals of interest in the months after the theft, both the reader and all those involved are able to unravel the mystery.

I loved this book. LOVED IT! Set in Victorian England and hailed as the first English language detective novel, there is a lot of good stuff here: tension between the servants and those they serve, major red herrings in the mystery, the exotic excitement of Indian curses, sanctimonious religious zealots, and a lot of humor. I'm becoming a big fan of Wilkie Collins.

Because the novel is written in this specific epistolary style, each narrator has a very distinct voice and take on events and other characters. I found it really enjoyable to see how certain narrators portrayed themselves versus how other narrators saw them. For example, when Betteredge narrated he seemed so composed and respectable as the head steward of the Verinder servants, but when Mr. Blake or Mr. Jennings narrated, he was a little more quirky. The reader got to see Betteredge's feelings about the power of Robinson Crusoe, and then also see Mr. Blake and Mr. Jennings humoring this obsession. And by obsession, I mean he would read it the way some people read the bible. He would open it randomly and use the passage he first came to as advice or an omen. Another character who I found greatly changed between narrators was Mr. Bruff, the lawyer. Seen as so stuffy and judgmental as Miss Clack was writing her account, I was surprised to then find him so intelligent and thoughtful and kind throughout his narration and Mr. Blake's subsequent narration. Of course, by the end of her narration I was ready to take everything Miss Clack said with a grain of salt. She was just so ridiculously sanctimonious! I wanted to scream every time she tried to give someone else a religious tract (with titles such as Satan Under the Tea Table). I think she was the only character I couldn't wait to get rid of. Maybe Godfrey, too, but at least he was never a narrator.

I like a mystery where things get a bit convoluted before the big reveal. There's a big drug experiment close to the end of the novel where they tried to reenact the birthday party, and I kept having to refer to the first half of the novel to remember the little details that tuned out to be major clues. I like when every detail turns out to be important.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with this novel. Much like The Woman in White, another of Collins' most famous works, The Moonstone hasn't quite aged well. In the 142 years since its publication, we've come understand a little more about drugs and their effects. And while I have no personal knowledge of opium, having never chased the dragon myself, I'm pretty sure you can't manipulate circumstances into giving a person the exact same trip twice. So if you're not someone willing or able to suspend some disbelief, you might have a problem towards the end of the novel. It didn't bother me too much, but it could totally ruin the whole book for other readers.

Other than that one issue, I was enthralled the whole way through. It wasn't creepy or suspenseful the same way The Woman in White was, but it kept me thinking and guessing the whole way through.


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