Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Adventure classics -- Wilkie Collins' gem of a whodunit

The Moonstone

by Wilkie Collins


Hailed as the first of the classic detective novels, the serial publication in 1868 of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone drew such popular acclaim readers placed bets on the whereabouts of the signature yellow diamond at the heart of the story. Its intricate plot (whose elements have been cribbed countless times), sympathetic depictions of non-Western religion, and cast of Dickensian characters ensure its place on the greatest of all time novel lists and the continuing remakes.

And all this is despite Collins’ assertion that “I was not only pleased and astonished at the finale, but did not recognise it as my own.” No wonder. To cope with the physical pain of gout, the psychic pain of his beloved mother’s death, and the upheaval of two separate households, each with its own pseudo-wife, he was taking doses of the opiate laudanum huge enough to kill most people.

To a modern reader, a plot that makes not only one, but two important characters the victims of amnesia seems foul play. Even feckless aristocrat and prime suspect Franklin Blake doesn’t know whether or not he’s the thief. His memory is a perfect blank after ingesting a nineteenth century version of a roofie, whose effects Collins knew only too well.

It doesn’t help that the, again, not one but two women in love with Blake try to shield him. They only succeed in making things so murky even the great detective Sergeant Cuff, imported from London for the case, hares off on the wrong scent.

Perhaps it’s because Blake never regains trust in his own memory that the novel purports to be compiled from the recollections of multiple narrators.

The story opens with a prologue set in the real 1799 siege of Seringapatam (in what is now the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka). During the ensuing battle, John Hearncastle steals a fabled yellow diamond named the Moonstone from the fortress’s treasury, but not before one of the defenders vows, “The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!”

Dogged by the gem’s guardians who follow him from India, Hearncastle, the outcast of his family, maliciously wills the Moonstone to Rachel Verinder, daughter of his widowed estranged sister, Lady Verinder. The diamond is to be presented to Rachel on her eighteenth birthday. To celebrate the birthday, Lady Verinder gives a dinner party whose guests include two of her nephews, Franklin Blake and Godfrey Ablewhite, who are also rivals for Rachel’s love.

That night, Rachel insists on keeping the diamond in an unlocked cabinet in her own room. And in a house inhabited only by members of the family and their devoted servants, the diamond disappears. Did Rachel steal her own birthday present for some unfathomable reason? Or did Blake, as Rachel fears? Or Lady Verinder’s newest parlor maid, supposedly reformed thief Roseanna Spearman? Or even the three Indian jugglers who turn up unexpectedly to present entertainment at Rachel’s birthday celebration?

A year passes with no sign of the diamond, but not without signs that the fabulous gem is still exacting its vengeance. Can it be a coincidence that both Godfrey Ablewhite, pillar of charitable institutions, and shady pawnbroker Septimus Luker are attacked and searched by unknown assailants? Did Ablewhite and Luker meet through one of Ablewhite’s pet charities, the hilariously-named Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion Society? (Its purpose: to redeem pawned trousers and retailor them into children’s clothes.) Or is there some deeper connection between the men, such as the mysterious valuable in the strongbox of Luker’s bankers, a valuable due to be redeemed a year after the theft?

The story is available in many versions, including a free ebook through Project Gutenberg, For more about the significance of the book, I liked For more about Collins’ life and work, I liked The King of Inventors, by Catherine Peters. The illustration for this post is from my library, from The Works of Wilkie Collins, published in 30 volumes by P.F. Collier & Son in 1900.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an April of mysteries by looking at Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with commentary from Pierre Bayard’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd.)

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