After The Woman in Black, I was happily reminded of the completely different Woman in White and just how much I relished reading this wonderful Wilkie Collins’ novel last year. Having already traveled back in time somewhat with Susan Hill, I really needed an injection of Wilkie magic; deliciously old-fashioned fun and frolics. The Moonstone is a Collins classic that I have been itching to read for months; widely lauded as the birth of the ‘detective’ genre, like The Woman in White, it is an epistolary novel originally serialised in Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round.
Our first homely and humble narrator is Gabriel Betteridge; lifelong and much-respected servant and protector of the Verinder household. It is through a rather rambling, yet heartwarming, narrative, punctuated by inspirational quotations taken from Robinson Crusoe, that we are introduced to Rachel Verinder, her family and their unusual predicament. Just in time for her eighteenth birthday, Rachel’s cousin Mr Franklin Blake appears at the house with the Moonstone; a mysterious jewel she has inherited her uncle; stolen from the forehead of a sacred Hindu statue during the Siege of Seringpatam. During the night, when everyone in the house is supposedly asleep, the exotic jewel is is stolen from Rachel’s room.
From here on out we are whipped up in a classic, Cluedo-style whodunnit scenario. Sergeant Cuff; a detective renowned for his successful investigations is summonsed to the house to solve the mystery. As well as interviewing the wide cast of characters in the house, he also investigates the appearance of three ‘Hindoo’ men at various junctures throughout the previous afternoon/evening; guardians of the Moonstone who it is thought would be prepared to kill to have it returned to its rightful place…
Although I’m not a great reader of modern day ‘detective’ novels, it is quite plain to see how Wilkie Collins’ created a number of archetypal characters for these kinds of stories; the hero, the damsel in distress, the professional, the scapegoat etc etc. I also found it easy to see, having read Dickens’ and other authors of his generation, how Collins’ was really rather modern in his writing of women; who, rather than acting as a bit of frill around a largely male narrative, are (as in The Woman in White) real, fleshed out characters and really quite complex in some cases. I also found references to the ‘Hindoos’ quite sensitively done for the time. Although they are represented as being ‘other’, and outside the norm, his writing of their exoticism managed not to be too racist,an approach greatly assisted by the appearance of Mr Murthwaite; a great explorer, well-versed in Hindu customs and able to shed some light on the three foreign strangers for Sergeant Cuff.
Provided I can follow the story and don’t (as I recently had to do with Winifred Holtby’s South Riding) have to constantly remind myself who I’m reading about, I love the ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ style of these colourful characters. As with his other novels, particularly with narratives like Gabriel Betteridge’s which started to become a little rambly at times, the periodic change in narrator acted as a welcome breath of fresh air every so often. Some characters, particularly the bible bashing Miss Clark were laugh-out-loud funny, yet I was left teased by the very brief appearances of fascinating individuals who I would have liked to hear more from; included Mr Murthwaite and Ezra Jennings, the ailing, opium addicted doctor’ assistant whose brief appearance at the end of the book engenders an ingenious plan to finally solve the riddle of the Moonstone.
Although some parts of the mystery seemed a little far-fetched to me, that doesn’t affect this fun literary romp in any way. However, it seemed to take an inordinate for the investigation to come to its conclusion and I did suffer from ‘flicky page’ syndrome (i.e. flicking to the back of the book to see how many pages I have left!) throughout the last 200 pages or so. That said, these kinds of novels never fail to make an impression on me. Although there are some obvious, slightly boring lulls in the narrative, I was left completely surprised by the various and twists and turns and even more so when the entire series of events is eventually revealed at the very end. It strikes me that the meticulous planning that must go into a book like this must be, as with writing a ghost story, extensive, and it never fails to impress me as my brain simply doesn’t work in such an ordered way. It is all very, very clever indeed.
That said, I would go for The Woman in White before The Moonstone as the ideal introduction to Wilkie Collins’. Both novels are very well written and lots of fun, but The Woman in White didn’t take up half of my concentration levels to get into and I found the characters even more entertaining Gabriel Betteridge and chums…
NB: Whilst we’re on the subject of this book; this drawing was so brilliant I just had to share it with you; the work of Amy McKay at Scaleface and Friends. It seems she does illustrations for children’s books…..Can you guess who’s who?!