The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)

  • By Wilkie Collins
  • Serialised in All the Year Round. First published: UK: Tinsley Brothers, 1868

The famous first English detective story. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “probably the very finest detective story ever written; T.S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”.  It influenced Doyle‘s Sign of Four (stolen Indian jewel, dishonourable soldiers, fanatics returned from India to claim treasure, murder with entry through trap-door) and Sayers herself (particularly The Documents in the Case: the use of documents and letters, characters telling their story in their own words—and the narrative of the religious spinster, Miss Clack).

Apart from being of historical interest, it stands up very well on its own merits.  Like a lot of Victorian novels, it bogs down in the middle; and Collins isn’t Dickens (who was?).  Both the beginning and the ending are absorbing—it’s only the endless scenes with Miss Clack, amusing at first but very soon irritating, that drag.  The style is more modern and flatter than Dickens’s, lacking his gusto and humour, and less evocative than Doyle, and the characters are less memorable (more subdued and naturalistic) than either’s.  However, the plot is much tighter than Dickens’s—properly clued (lots of footnotes to check a remark in an earlier chapter, obviously an innovation of which Collins was very proud), and the famous solution, involving opium and somnambulism, is ingenious—the ancestor of the scientific approach in R. Austin Freeman and John Rhode.