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The Moonstone: How Wilkie Collins Popularized the Detective Genre

It’s that time of year again where if you live anywhere other than the southern US, (Florida specifically in my case), then you’re probably starting to feel the first crispness of fall in the air. With the changing of the seasons certain genres immediately spring to mind and are reliably popular year after year. One of these is the mystery and detective genre. Whether you like spooky and grisly murder mysteries or cozy whodunits, many people find themselves reaching for these titles as they settle down by the fireside. There is something powerfully psychological, I believe, about autumn and winter that make us all more likely to retreat into ourselves for reevaluation and contemplation. This is most likely influenced by the less hospitable weather that makes us want to hunker down inside our houses imposing a sense of external as well as self-imposed sense of claustrophobia upon ourselves. For centuries humans have gravitated towards dark and mysterious tales told round a fireside, so in a sense, these mystery novels are just another step in this tradition. One of the main authors who started this trend of selling suspenseful stories in novel form was Wilkie Collins.

Though for many decades Collins was relegated to the tier of less popular Victorian authors, this friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens is finally now regaining the mainstream popularity he once had. Collins’ books sold very well during his lifetime; he was not an author that was only appreciated in his posterity and this was mainly because he was writing to his audience and produced the kind of stories his audience was hungry for. The Victorian era gave birth to the pot-boiler, the penny dreadful, the sensationalist story, and Collins’ melodramas, rife with tantalizing twists and confounding cliffhangers, were eaten up by his adoring public. His first landmark success was The Woman in White, a chilling tale filled with greed, love, mistaken identity, and family loyalty. Not many years later he followed this up with his next hit, The Moonstone, which is often credited as, if not the first piece of detective fiction, one of the most beloved and influential.

The Moonstone contains many elements that we have all come to expect from a mystery novel: a valuable diamond vanishes in the night, and everyone in the wide cast of colorful characters is a suspect. Here already we can see echoes of other later legendary mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie, who made use of the “trust no one” trope which she uses to great effect in her novel Murder on the Orient Express. The Moonstone also has given us one of the earliest examples of the detective as a character and as a professional. At the time of the publication of Collins’ novel the actual formal job title of detective was quite new, and had only existed for a few decades. There were policemen of course, but a specific job dedicated to the investigation of crime rather than just the carrying out of punitive justice was something that was still novel. Collins though gives us not just one but two detectives, Sergeant Cuff and Sergeant Seegrave, though Sergeant Cuff is the one who does the bulk of the investigating. It is through comparing and contrasting the different methods though of both the sergeants, (or in this case Cuff’s method and Seegrave’s lack of method since he mainly relies on mere supposition), that the importance of accuracy in evaluating evidence in investigative detecting is brought to light. Collins doesn’t use Seegrave’s bluff and bluster to poke fun at the profession of either policemen or detectives; instead, he simply shows how allowing things like egotism to get in the way of accurate work, (as Seegrave does), is unprofessional. Far from mocking the important work that detectives do, Collins is instead holding them to a higher standard as upholders of the law.

But though Sergeant Cuff and the law are presented in The Moonstone as generally forces for good, Collins was not afraid to walk a bit on the dark side and contend with one of the shadier practices of his era: medically prescribed opioids such as laudanum. In the 19th century laudanum was one of the most popular drugs administered by physicians for a positively enormous amount of ailments. But though laudanum often was capable of rendering patients’ suffering with temporary relief, it also was highly addictive, and far from curing their conditions often exacerbated them, in many cases even bringing on their early deaths. Lizzie Siddal, the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, died from an overdose of laudanum after being addicted to it for many years. Collins himself even took laudanum for his gout and experienced its ill effects personally! With all this in mind then, it is hardly surprising that opium features in The Moonstone so heavily. It also ties in with the orientalist and exoticist themes that run through the novel.

The moonstone itself is the first exotic artifact that the reader encounters. A glittering, yellow diamond of immense size and value, the stone is the axis on which the entire plot turns, and its recovery, the story’s mission. The jewel though is not just any jewel: it is a sacred diamond stolen from a Hindu temple. The history of the moonstone and how it came to be in the possession of the Verinder family, is told in the very first pages of the novel, so Collins sets the tone very early on that this novel concerns itself greatly with matters that are not limited to British soil. Choosing a Hindu diamond as the missing jewel makes a great deal of sense if you consider Collins’ audience. This was a time where the expansion of the British Empire was a matter of great interest, and the hitherto unknown many lands of the far east, of China and India, had captured the public imagination. It would not have been uncommon to find imported, decorative, goods in your average middle-class British home. Once something that would have been seen as something only to be owned by the very wealthy, items such as authentic Chinese tea sets were in Collin’s day all the rage, and could be easily procured. Examples such as these were widespread and help to shape for us the mindset of the 19th century British citizen, who was the target reader of a book like The Moonstone.

Of course it is impossible to overlook the presence also of prejudice and racial stereotyping that was common during this time, and though Collins’ work is hardly completely free of this, he does deserve credit for the amount of sympathetic treatment he gives to the Indian characters in the novel. Whereas in many books of this era they would have been completely seen as villainous, Collins’ portrayal is more nuanced, and the novel’s ending particularly reinforces this, since the Indians ultimately are the “winners” of the story rather than the losers. Collins for this has been celebrated by many, and his ending seen as subversive because it disrupts the status quo of his time. Collins no doubt took a risk by ending the novel in this way, since popular opinion might have seen it as disloyalty to the British regime. It may have been fashionable to purchase goods from India, but international relations between England and India were often far from sunny, and the imperialist, colonialist view of Great Britain was at its high point.

Collins was also revolutionary in the way he wrote his female characters, arguably presenting them as more well-rounded even than Dickens in many instances. Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone is a fully realized character of conviction and passion, and is far from a passive character. Her knowledge of the theft of the diamond is as instrumental to solving the mystery as any of the male characters. And it is not just upper-class ladies that Collins’ excels with. Rosanna Spearman, the house maid with a dark past, is an intriguing character that is far more than just an accessory whose only role is to serve the Verinder family, and has motivations and a role to play of her own. Collins gave his female characters agency at a time when the more passive, delicate, female character still was the most common one to be found. Rachel is gentile, but she is anything but dense or ornamental. Collins then also not only was able to show female characters as fully rounded people, he also did not feel it was necessary to rob a female character of her womanly qualities in order to make her “strong” or “capable.”

If you’re looking for a good adaption, the 2016 miniseries by the BBC is truly excellent. It follows the book plot wise very well and has a wonderful cast. I particularly liked the actors who played Rachel, Frank, and Rosanna a great deal. Rachel’s character comes off a bit differently to me in the show as opposed to the book; but I still liked her a great deal and she remained my favorite character. I also liked how the show tried to emulate the multiple narrative technique employed by Collins to help build up the suspense and show us how each of the characters viewed the events and how they played out. The production quality was very high and the moodiness of the cinematography reminded me of another adaption, made two year later in 2018, of Collins’ other famous novel The Woman in White.

This novel is absolutely one I think everyone with an interest in the origins of the mystery genre should definitely try. And even if you aren’t a huge mystery fan if you love classic literature there is still much here to love. It also has a bit of a “spooky” feel so it’s perfect for the upcoming months!

Have you read the novel or seen an adaption? Are you a fan of Wilkie Collins or the mystery genre? Drop me a comment and tell me all about your favorite mystery!

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