James Gault reviews The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Coliins’ The Moonstone is not the first detective novel, but I think it may be considered the ‘mother of the Manor House mystery’. (Are novels feminine?) These stories have certain unique plot features that became so stylised that they eventually resulted in a famous board game, Cluedo. The action (if not the whole action at least the crime) takes place in a confined setting, usually, but not always, a large English manor house. The narrow limits of the setting serve to impose a limit on the possible suspects. A large country house is therefore ideal, although a train like the Orient Express or a cruise ship would serve equally well. A puzzling crime is committed, but who was the perpetrator? Enter the detective, amateur or professional, whose journey we follow as he discovers the clues and exposes the evidence. Eventually, after several false trails and twists and turns in the plot, the criminal is exposed and justice is done. It’s a familiar story structure to us all nowadays, but not so to readers in Collin’s time. The pleasure in reading this novel goes beyond the intrigue. It is to see reflected in this novel the work of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and all the many other later great detective story tellers.
A manor house detective mystery is not so much a story as a puzzle for the reader to work out. The whole point is to solve the crime before the author takes you there. If you’re right, you win. If not, well, a bit more practice with a few more novels and your deductive powers will improve. But the focus on the unexpected events and the confusing clues is often thought to lead to a tendency to neglect the characters. Crime novelist will deny this, pointing out that it is the strength of their characters that brings the stories to life. In this case, however, I feel that, apart from two notable exceptions, the criticism of weak characterisation is justified.
The two characters who do jump out of the page, Miss Clack and Mr Godfrey Ablewhite, do so for an interesting reason. There is an underlying hypocrisy in their behaviour and Collins shows it using such delightful irony we cannot help smiling and perhaps even liking the characters a little, although I am not too sure that is what the author intended. But his approach here does show that to make a character real and interesting, it pays to go beneath the surface.
Another aspect about the narrative style of this novel is how the story is presented from the point of view of different characters at different stages. I found this quite clever. As apparently no character has access to all the information, it makes the reader the only one in a position to be the detective. It adds a bit to the challenge of the book.
Even though this is a very old novel, if you are a fan of whodunits it is well worth the investing some of your time to read it. It works both as a historical curiosity and as a rattling good mystery.
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