Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone

In my ongoing quest for the classics of literature I have come across a lesser known classic. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins belongs to the very first detective novels. So this was before any standard formats were used and the typical clichés were known. The Moonstone entered a new frontier and just that makes it an exciting read.

In some cases, if one encounters an early book of a genre, one runs the risk that, as it did not know of clichés it can be full of it. This is certainly not the case in the Moonstone. It is actually the lack of standards and formats which make is unique. Collins was still exploring this new genre. He did not know what would work and what would not. This resulted in a novel containing all kinds of familiar elements that are just off a little. They are very appealing but still lacking. It is imperfect. If one has read plenty of detective novels you easily pick out which elements developed into this or that later in the genre. Here they are still different and they have a different effect.

One big game changer compared to contemporary detectives is that this novel is a character piece. The characters define the plot and the mystery while usually it is the plot that defines the story and the characters needed to make it work. The plot itself is not that complex and one can fairly well guess who did it. It is only because Collins makes his characters create smoke screens that the reader remains uncertain until late in the book with a fairly baffling conclusion. The Moonstone makes its mark and it is certainly one of a kind. It will certainly survive the ages, although it should be awarded more attention that is has had as I myself only discovered it by chance.

As I wrote the novel is a character piece. This is for a large extent accomplished by telling the story in several different first person narratives. Each character is very different and creates a different atmosphere in the part in which their story is narrated. Collins has plenty of time to flesh them out. It would even have been better if other characters in the story would also have narrated a part of the story as some remain partially developed and not always as well as the other side characters have been done. Here Collins was probably constricted by the fact that he was telling a detective story and some narratives were simply not logical to present.

The Moonstone is not a perfect novel. Instead it thrives on its imperfections as a detective novel and a strong characterization. The plot floats between complex and simplistic. Some answers were quite impossible to guess while others were fairly obvious. The novel is very much a product of its time where science was only yet developing and there was still a division between higher society and government officials that limited serious investigations. This new change was at the time not ripened yet but one can see it coming. There were still constraints and the differences between social classes and their internal behavior played a large role. Collins depicts these clearly. As always, living 150 years later, it sometimes seems to strange. Are the descriptions and attitudes so distinct because they were normal and natural to the writer or something he aimed at to create a greater contrast. I am not that familiar with mid nineteenth century England to really make comments about it, but contemporary literature, in a way, always describes the times as they are written in and this is what makes them distinct as you can place them in their times. That is a difference that I note between contemporary authors writing a story that takes place many decades ago and novels written in that period.

I will not diverge to much from the actual review of this novel. I think I have said enough already. This one is certainly recommended, not only for fans of the detective genre. One last note: my edition contained extensive notes and introductions. It is advisable to skip them all until the novel is done as they are quite spoilerish.

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