Pioneering Detective and Mystery Fiction
Wilkie Collins is amongst renowned British writer, Charles Dickens’ closest friends. It was through Dickens that the world was introduced to the very first mystery fiction, Collins’ The Moonstone. Before the entire narrative was published as one collected novel, it was first serialized in Dickens’ publication. The rest, they say is history; this masterfully crafted mystery story has sensationally put the world on its collective toes, famously setting the bar for the modern English mystery and detective fiction.
Renowned writer TS Eliot went as far as claiming mystery and detective fiction was “invented by Collins and not by Poe.” In the same sentiments, Dorothy L. Sayers, a queen of crime in the 1930s and 40s, pronounced The Moonstone as “probably the finest detective story ever written.” Its influence transcends today and are prevalent in several crime novels such as the works of PD James.
“Your tears come easy, when you’re young, and beginning the world. Your tears come easy, when you’re old, and leaving it. I burst out crying.” ~ Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
The Moonstone relates the story of a crime that occurred in the English countryside. But it is no ordinary crime as it involves a storied piece of jewelry that traces its origin from India. The said jewelry, the eponymous moonstone was bequeathed to Rachel Verinder as her eighteenth birthday present. At the night of her birthday, the moonstone gets stolen in Rachel’s room. No one knows who took it except for Rachel who vehemently kept her silence during the entire proceedings.
To get to the bottom of the mystery, a Scotland Yard detective, Sergeant Cuff, was called in. As Sergeant Cuff digs deeper into the affairs, different facets of the robbery began to converge. Sergeant Cuff was inches away from solving the perplexing puzzle when everything was suddenly called to a halt. Who took the moonstone? On a greater picture, what significance does the moonstone behold?
Wilkie Collins, through The Moonstone, has pioneered many elements of the modern mystery and detective fiction. These elements include the presence of multiple false suspects, detective inquiries, red herrings, a reconstruction of the crime, and the concept of an “inside job”. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, both famed literary skilled, professional investigators, likely traced their births to Sergeant Cuff. The Moonstone is work of fiction that weaved all these varying elements into one coherent narrative. Many an author would later on plod the same path that Collins took.
Beyond its accomplishment of numerous “firsts”, Collins’ masterstroke lies in his savvy and witty incorporation of historical events. Collins was sheer genius in his obscurity of the connection between his work and the actual theft of the Tippoo diamond after the fall of Seringapatam. Imbued with certain Indian elements, the story was given a different complexion that drew the readers towards the imperial drama and enigma of India.
“If you will look about you (which most people won’t do),” says Sergeant Cuff, “you will see that the nature of a man’s tastes is, most times, as opposite as possible to the nature of a man’s business.” ~ Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
In the world of literature, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is a towering piece of work because of the legacy it has bestowed to literature in general. Its legacy is one that has transcended and will transcend time. Beyond being the precursor to the modern detective and mystery fiction, The Moonstone and Wilkie Collins put on a literary display that is both astounding and outstanding.
The Moonstone maybe the pioneer for detective fiction but its real brilliance lies on its qualities as a novel. The interplay among the numerous characters kept the readers riveted from the onset. Each has his or her own backstory that absorbs the readers. These subtle digressions depicted different subjects such as elements of the Victorian era, unrequited love among others.
More than what it did with detective fiction, The Moonstone fascinated with its storytelling, a crucial aspect in the novel’s longevity. Its effective use of the narrative viewpoint elevated the novel. The swift transitions between the primary narrators gave the narrative varying pace and texture. Collins skillfully used the narrators’ personalities to dictate the tempo of an otherwise complicated plot.
An average detective novel is one third of The Moonstone’s length, yet Collins was able to capably rivet the interest of the readers from the start until its surprising denouement. Albeit the numerous twists and turns, the novel managed to remain credible all through out. Truly, Collins put to effective use all those above mentioned “firsts” in order to brainchild a narrative that simply amazes the reader. It was carefully thought out all over.
“We often hear, almost invariably, however, from superficial observers, that guilt can look like innocence. I believe it to be infinitely the truer axiom of the two that innocence can look like guilt.” ~ Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
The Moonstone is a fitting, albeit subtle, tribute to the history of the original crime, that of the theft of the Tippoo diamond. The presence of three Brahmins and their dubious actions automatically made them suspects. Collins, in an uncanny and brilliant display, showed once again that the real culprits were the artisan and upright Englishmen.
The moniker of being the father of modern English mystery and detective fiction is well-earned. The Moonstone is, at the same time, your typical and your atypical detective and mystery fiction. During its publication, it achieved a lot of accolades, being the first of many things in the detective fiction. More than being these firsts, what Collins achieved is a cohesive and wonderful narrative that is bound to remain relevant for years to come.
The fusion of English Victorian fiction and mystery give The Moonstone a different literary vibe. It was a finely written narrative that keeps the readers on their collective toes, a feat that is quite difficult to achieve, even amongst the most seasoned mystery writers. Collins may have set the standard with The Moonstone by accomplishing a lot of many “first” but it is his resolve to come up with credible and entertaining piece of fiction that towers above all.
The Moonstone is on a pedestal that is rightly its own.
It was the mystery genre that first drew me in to the wonderful and astonishing world of reading. The gripping mystery and the perplexing plot twists exhilarates the reader in me but rarely, if ever, confounds the literati in me. This is what The Moonstone gave me, a different flavor, a different interpretation of mystery and detective fiction. Wait, I got it wrong. The Moonstone is what every mystery fiction aim for, gripping yet relevant.
Author: Wilkie Collins
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Publishing Date: 1996
Number of Pages: 448 pages
Genre: Detective Fiction, Suspense, Mystery
The Moonstone, a priceless Indian diamond which had come to England as poils of war, is given to Rachel Verrinder on her eighteenth birthday. That very night, the stone is stolen; suspicion falls on a hunchbacked housemaid, on Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake, on a troupe of mysterious Indian jugglers, and Rachel herself.
The phlegmatic Sergeant Cuff is called in, and with the help of Betteredge, the Robinson Crusoe-reading loquacious Steward, the mystery of the missing stone is ingeniously solved.
About the Author
(Postrait by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880) William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824 in Marylebone, London.
Born to a family of painters, Collins received his early education from his mother at home. He received his first formal education at the Maida Vale Academy in 1835. from 1838 to 1840, Collins attended the Reverend Cole’s private boarding school in Highbury, where he was bullied by a boy who wouldn’t let him go to sleep until he tells him a story. Collins credited this “brute” for awakening his creative “power” which he “might have never been aware (of)”.
Collins’ first published work was The Stage Coachman (1843) which was published in the Illuminated Magazine. In 1844, he begun working on his first novel, Iolani, or Tahiti as It Was; a Romance. It was rejected and remains unpublished until this day. In March 1851, Collins became friends with Charles Dickens who was introduced by painter Augustus Egg. This proved an instrumental event in his life and career as a writer as Dickens would inspire him to write more and extend the variety of his writing.
Amongst Collins’ most notable works are The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). Apart from novels, Collins also wrote short story collections and plays. He also co-wrote some plays with fellow English writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and his friend, Charles Dickens.
Wilkie Collins passed away on September 23, 1889 following a paralytic stroke.