I don’t remember when I acquired my paperback copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Internal evidence (the copyright notice on the reprint) suggests it was probably in the mid-1980s. If I read it at the time, I have only the most tenuous memory of having done so; I may have read the opening chapters and then dropped it. But having bluntly dismissed, in this blog, recently, the work of several modern authors of mysteries, I figured I ought to give Collins a fresh try.
Considered strictly as a mystery, The Moonstone is rather silly. The plot includes a trio of lurking “Hindoos” (the book was published in 1868), a heartbroken servant girl who hides a vital clue and then commits suicide, and — spoiler alert! — opium. Really there are only two viable suspects who might have absconded with the extraordinary diamond known as the Moonstone, and the book is structured in such a way that we know one of them is innocent. Still, there’s a good deal of suspense, because we don’t know what actually happened, or how Rachel could have come so bitterly and obstinately to blame Franklin for the theft of the jewel, when Franklin himself knows he had nothing to do with it. I won’t spoil that by explaining it to you.
What I found engaging about the book was not the plot but the writing. Collins was a friend of Dickens, and that sprawling 19th century style is in full flower. Beyond that, Collins gives us several first-person narrators, each of whom is privy to some of the events but not others. The first two fifths of the book are in the voice of Gabriel Betteredge, the head servant on the Yorkshire estate of Lady Verinder. Betteredge is a delightful old coot, very proper and yet emotionally engaged with his household and employer. He finds unfailing wisdom in his well-thumbed copy of Robinson Crusoe. When his portion of the narrative draws to a close, the story is taken over, for a few chapters, by Miss Drusilla Clack, a spinster who considers herself an exemplary Christian and is fond of distributing religious pamphlets full of advice, even when (as is inevitably the case) the recipient of the pamphlets shows no interest. Miss Clack is not a complex character, but she’s hilarious in a creepy way.
Both Betteredge and Clack exercise the leisure to share their opinions with us — opinions not about the crime itself but about life in general. They’re vivid characters, and that’s what makes the book worth reading. Toward the end of the story we’re introduced to, and have a few chapters from, Ezra Jennings, a tragic and doomed man who succeeds in penetrating the mystery that has baffled Sergeant Cuff, a legendary Scotland Yard detective. Here again, Collins is reaching well beyond the confines of his mystery plot. His concerns are larger.
If I write another mystery (not guaranteed), I think I’d prefer to follow Collins’s model rather than hew to the narrower strictures of the modern crime novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with the modern crime novel. In the right hands it can be a marvelous thing. I’m a big fan of Ross MacDonald, Rex Stout, Tony Hillerman, and a number of other writers. But the modern mystery is such a well-trodden field! I can’t help feeling it would be better to try something different — something more generous in its prose, its structure, and its details of character.
And why not? It’s not as if I have a huge fan base who are eager to snap up my next fast-paced, hard-hitting thriller. Whatever I write, I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.