It was not surprising to find that Wilkie Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens. Both writers have hefty works, probably because they tended to get paid by the word, but in Collins’ case because he…likes…to…drag…things…….o…u……t. (Spoilers)
I wanted to like The Moonstone, I really did. It started well, telling the history of a cursed jewel, and setting up what I hoped would be a locked room mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, but it was not to be. The tale starts with a butler named Betteredge, who uses Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (it rhymes!) as a bible. His retelling of the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond from a birthday party at an English country estate are rather amusing, especially his funny opinions on women. Once we get to the day that the diamond is found missing, it seems we are headed in the direction of the not-yet-created Sherlock Holmes as they eventually bring in a celebrated police detective. Like Holmes, Sergeant Cuff is odd and unfathomable to those around him. He doesn’t get along with his fellow policeman and poo-poos their efforts because he is smarter, he is Sherlock—I mean Cuff. But Cuff is way too obsessed with growing roses and isn’t nearly as forthright as Sherlock, so he ultimately doesn’t solve the mystery, at least at that time.
This is what’s both frustrating and fascinating about the story: The mystery always seems on the edge of being solved, but then we take another turn, and throughout it all we only really have the narratives of persons who are bystanders to the main action. There’s shivering sands, women in obsessive love, mind-boggling religious maniacs, and elaborate painted doors, all of which should form an almost gothic atmosphere, but I didn’t think the atmosphere ever really appeared. It was hard to connect with the main romantic couple as we only get a third person view of them, at least until the last fourth of the tale. One of the big reveals actually got a, “huh?” from me. I am not sure if it would have been a surprise at the time Collins’ wrote it, but I had forgotten that back in the 1800s both sexes often wore nightgowns to bed. Collins did focus on the idea that the nightgown must be a female’s so it must have been intentional misdirection, but I just felt a moment of culture shock as the tale carried on.
One great thing about the story is that Collins is not afraid to write himself into a corner. I knew he was clever after reading The Woman in White, but The Moonstone is pretty much the creation of a new genre, the detective story. Only this one didn’t have as much of an actual detective to follow as I would like. It’s a curious mystery, and I can see why mystery buffs would like it. For me, the story was just too long and severely lacked action considering its length. The narrative of Miss Clack was really funny at first, but I got tired of her really quickly, as I imagine most people who encounter her would, and I longed to go back to Betteredge.
Throughout the story, the Indians, bent on getting their diamond back, popped up from time to time, and as the narratives wore on and on, I found myself rooting for them to get the Moonstone and take it back to India where it belonged. Because then the story would be over and we would know who the thieves were…er, the re-thieves. It was a bit difficult to care about this English family keeping such a diamond when the book opens by telling us how their relative outright stole it from a palace or temple in India. Stole it even knowing the jewel was cursed. I was glad the rock got to its rightful owners in the end, and that the Miss Rachel who inherited it didn’t care two bits, for she got her love at last. Happiness for all, or at least most everyone, is a good ending for any story, but I prefer Collins’ The Woman in White as being more of a spooky story, especially as it has the benefit of a clear villain. I do want to check out the BBC miniseries on The Moonstone, though, as I can imagine the difficulty of adapting this to the screen and want to see what they came up with.
In conclusion, The Moonstone was overly long and really about rightful owners stealing the diamond back–a recycled theft if you will. At times it held my attention well, but mostly it was infuriating, and I don’t think there is any way I could have guessed how the bits of the mystery would play out. Still, the story was the first or one of the first of its kind, and that in itself makes it worth reading.