Wilkie Collins (1824–1889)
The Moonstone (1868, serialized in All the Year Round and in book form the same year)
Roll 24 was… well, I don’t have it in front of me but it was apparently between 859 and 862, the Wilkie Collins range, any of which numbers would result in my reading his first listed, The Moonstone. Which I happened already to own, having bought it off a sidewalk bookseller’s table in 2002 on a whim and then never opened. I read it in a matter of a few weeks… last fall.
I have put off writing about this book for a long time – (insert 5 months later: make that a very very long time) – because from the beginning I wasn’t sure what was worth saying about it. It’s fairly self-apparent what this book is, to the point where it was hard for me to imagine writing more than a couple of sentences of explanation. I would then be obliged to pad that out with unmotivated riffing, which I didn’t want to do. So I did nothing. Now the time has come, I say, to swallow my standards and do something anyway, so I can get this off my to-do list.
As a service to the reader: what this book is. This book is a popular serial entertainment, a rambling soap opera. It is, specifically, the sort of devil-may-care nerded-up soap opera where the suitors and secrets are intermingled with exotic unlikelihoods such as hypnotism, Indian assassins, opium, cursed diamonds, quicksand, and in the interest of spoiler camouflage I will here drop the scrim of “et cetera.”
The book is frequently cited as “the first English detective novel.” I can’t speak to whether it’s really the “first” of anything, but I can say that it reads like only a proto-detective novel. The Moonstone is at a halfway point between the sort of detectiveless family-secret mysteries one finds in most 19th-century novels (say, Bleak House) and the mystery genre proper, as we’ve known it since Sherlock Holmes. (For your orientation: Bleak House, 1852-3; The Moonstone, 1868; Sherlock Holmes, 1887.)
Note also that the claim is about detective novels only; the detective story had been established since Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841. So Collins already knew plenty about how mysteries worked; the only really new problem that he set himself in The Moonstone was how to make the unraveling of a single mystery be the backbone for a whole novel.
His solution is unremarkable: basically, he just throws in all the standard tricks of the Dickensian trade to beef it up. The plot gets prolonged and padded the way it does in any long novel: side characters, side plots, bits and small talk, sub-intrigues, etc. etc. But despite the utter familiarity of all this sort of thing, it still manages to feel like a strenuous display of puzzle-solving on the author’s part. He makes it look hard. We are privy to a great deal of the characters’ plan-making and intention-stating, as well as a great deal of situation-reviewing and stock-taking — in such scenes one feels that one can hear, as though through a too-thin wall, the writer huffing and puffing at his table. Not to denigrate Wilkie by the comparison, but I am reminded a bit of J.K. Rowling, who I guess has become the convenient archetype for me of a writer who reveals her inexpertise by leaving plot-sweat on the page.
Yes, the comparison is unfair because Collins was, in fact, an expert — certainly moreso than JKR — and in any case the standards for plotting are different for a serial novel, where a certain amount of sprawl and slack is to be expected and readily forgiven. Nonetheless if one attempts to read The Moonstone as a true detective novel it will seem strained, primitive, and inefficient. For one thing, the role of detective is divvied up among several characters over the course of the book – there’s no master-sleuth hero, which seems like a requisite. There is a proper detective playing the part for a while, but it’s as though Collins felt it would be absurd to extend his professional presence indefinitely; he reaches the end of the initial investigation and then disappears for most of the rest of the book, without having solved the mystery we actually care about.
I just started going into more detail about how it diverges from the “mystery” archetype but there’s no need. Delete. The point is this: we think of mysteries as having their own set of rules, their own particular fantasy, their own customary absurdities in service of their own implicit mimetic ideals. But The Moonstone draws on a much wider range of absurdities and has no very particular ideals. It is not nearly so singleminded a fantasy as a mystery — the singlemindedness being part of the pleasure, at least to me.
The Moonstone, rather, is generous and fanciful, and obviously designed only to be a thing that will sell, sell, sell. Occasionally dull, occasionally thrilling, often rather dumb but never actually insulting to the intelligence — all-around fine fare for an interminable bedtime read-aloud. The pleasure I took in it was never entirely unselfconscious, but I suppose neither is a child’s, and probably neither was a reader’s when it was first published. Half-camp isn’t an exclusively contemporary mode of enjoyment. I need to give those very modern men and women of 1868 some credit and assume that hearing about the theft of a cursed diamond was as frivolous and escapist for them as it is now, and that they knowingly submitted to it with a twinkle in their eyes.
What’s new nowadays is how the self-indulgence of escapism dovetails into the self-delusion of infantilism. I’m going to leave that sentence but not pursue it, lucky you.
Anyway, it’s plenty delightful, but not excellent. It’s not particularly nourishing either. It’s the sort of book that if you tried to write about it eight months after finishing it, you’d really have to stretch to remember the details. The main thing I remember is the climactic [spoiler], which is very very silly indeed.
No, I do remember, I do. Really. I remember quite a few of the secondary color character sketches, all of which compare unfavorably to Dickens, competing on exactly his turf.
Standards have been successfully swallowed. I think we’re well into the unmotivated riffing phase here. Will be done soon.
His device of multiple narrators — utilized only to gratingly superficial effect — is presented like it’s some kind of complex calculus, solved only by a stroke of authorial genius. (I was going to say “is presented Shyamalanically” but figured you wouldn’t be sure what I meant. I was right, wasn’t I.)
By the end you will have guessed all the right answers, but you will also have guessed all the wrong answers too.
The Oxford edition that I read, as seen above, has an introduction noisily attempting to dignify the proceedings with an oversold colonialist/anti-colonialist reading. Good try.
This is a good one for kids and/or the beach. In the context of the Harold Bloom merry-go-round-of-the-damned that I’m on, that’s a thumbs up.
Oh dammit, I forgot, I’m supposed to give you an excerpt. Hm. Okay, here’s the final paragraph of the book. Half-camp ahoy; I left with a smile on my face.
So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?