Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mount TBR #16

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

Both critics and fans call this well-known novel the first mystery. The central crime is a theft, with a murder only near the end, but the novel introduced hallmarks that the mystery genre later became famous for: the careful sowing of clues; the eccentric detective; the amateur sleuths making a hash of the investigation; a suspenseful working up to the unexpected climax.

Like The Woman in White, this novel was immensely popular in its own day, the late 1860s.  It lives in the present day, with over 50,000 ratings and almost 3,000 reviews at Goodreads. The Moonstone has survived among thinking readers like us, who read for the sheer pleasure of it, not caring about critical or scholarly opinion.  

One attraction of the novel is that it begins in the genial voice of an old house-steward. He is the kind of the reader who reads over and over one book, Robinson Crusoe, like Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has The Last Days of Pompeii and my chum Kathryn had Ivanhoe. Then the second part is a completely different voice, that of religious hypocrite spinster. The rest of the novel is also told in eight other first-person voices, showing Collins’ willingness to challenge himself in his craft.

Another plus: Collins has sympathy for women (as did Erle Stanley Gardner). Dorothy Sayers said he was "one of the very few male writers who can write realistically about women without prejudice and about sex without exaggeration."

The downsides are three and do not outweigh the pleasure of reading. The plot hinges on an improbable event. It is rather slow at the two-thirds point. It lacks a really strong female character and a rip-roaring villain. So no Marian Halcombe or Count Fosco as in The Woman in White. No Magdalen Vanstone, no Captain Horatio Wragge as in No Name.

The Moonstone was written when he was at his peak, the late 1860s, after The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and before Man and Wife (1870). After 1870, his health suffered and he became opioid-dependent. Though he never wrote a bad novel, his work suffered. The novels contracted in length and are probably read nowadays only by hardcore Collins’ fans.

Other Reviews of Wilkie Collins’ Works

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