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Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone Paperback – November 6, 2016
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The first character reminded me so much of "Mr. Carson" on Downton Abbey that I really enjoyed reading anything from him.
Since this was written in the latter half of the 1800's, I anticipated a tougher read given how much are language has changed since then, but I was quite relieved and delighted that it was very easy to read.
Specifically, there was "The Moonstone," a long and twisting Victorian tale that is considered the first mystery novel in the English language. Wilkie Collins's writing can be a bit dense at times (well, it IS a Victorian story) but it also has a cast of quirky characters in a very colorful story, and an unusually forward-thinking approach to class. How many other novels of this type have the BUTLER as the narrator?
After ten years in continental Europe, Franklin Blake returns to England to bring his cousin Rachel Verinder her eighteenth birthday present: a massive diamond called the Moonstone. It was left to her by her vile uncle, possibly as a malicious act -- three Hindu priests are lurking nearby, hoping to reclaim the sacred gem stolen from them long ago. Everyone except Rachel really wants the diamond split up, so it will no longer be a danger.
At the same time, Rachel is being wooed by two men -- the somewhat irresponsible young Franklin, and the prosperous but less attractive Godfrey Ablewhite. And a timid, deformed young maid named Rosanna has fallen desperately in love with Franklin (though he's completely oblivious to this).
Then after a dinner party, the Moonstone vanishes, leaving a smudge on a newly-painted door as the only clue. It seems that only someone in the house could have stolen it. But it doesn't turn up in any police sweeps, the priests have alibis, and Rachel flatly refuses to let Sergeant Cuff investigate further. She also refuses to speak to Franklin again. And after several months, Franklin learns of some new clues that could reveal who stole the Moonstone. With the now-retired Cuff and a disgraced doctor's assistant helping him, he sets out to unravel the mystery once and for all.
"The Moonstone" contains a lot of the tropes that later detective novels would use -- reenactment of the crime, red herrings, the culprit being the least likely suspect, and an English country house where you wouldn't expect a theft to take place. It even has TWO detectives -- a quirky police sergeant with plenty of brains, and a gentleman who is bright but kind of inexperienced.
Collins' prose can be a bit bloated at times, but he keeps it moving fast with lots of romantic drama and a hefty dose of humor (the insufferably pious Miss Clack: "Oh, be morally tidy. Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith"). He also switches between different perspectives throughout the book -- part is from the butler Mr. Betteridge, part is from Miss Clack, part is from Franklin Blake himself, and there are little snatches of text from various other people.
And it's quirky. Very quirky. At times it feels like the Victorian equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie, between Betteridge's fanboy preoccupation with Robinson Crusoe (which he uses for EVERYTHING) or Cuff's love of roses (which you wouldn't immediately associate with an elite police detective).
But there is a serious side to Collins' writing as well. Yes, "The Moonstone" has some uncomfortably sexist or racist moments, but he was never afraid to take a jab at the foibles of his own society -- hypocritical piety, stainable reputations or then-legal drug addiction. He also takes an unusually compassionate approach to the servant class in the character of Rosanna Spearman -- though she is plain, deformed and has a checkered history, Collins never mocks her or her hopeless love of Franklin.
He also provides us with a wide range of characters -- from wild young men to stately ladies, from a genial butler to the mysterious priests who are the likeliest suspects... but didn't actually do it. Rachel's melodrama can be a bit irritating at times (why didn't she confront Franklin?), but Franklin grows into a more responsible, thoughtful young man over the story, and he's balanced out nicely by the age and experience of the quirky Cuff and Betteridge.
"The Moonstone" is still a delightful read -- a powerful and sometimes tragic mystery, tempered with quirky humor and a likable cast of characters. While a bit overlong at times, it's still an outstanding little whodunnit.
It was most refreshing to see the Queen's English put to such exquisite use. Considering that, and the distant time-frame which naturally brings colloquialisms of the day into play, I would concede that this is not an easy read. It requires a bit of attention but was well worth the effort such is the author's command of the language and the extraordinary detail in virtually every observation.
The story is well told, in increments, by a number of the participants and witnesses to the mystery, which concerns itself with the disappearance of an exceptional diamond with some historical significance, that being a curse on the possessor. The style of the prose adjusts to suit each of the tellers. In large measure this consists of providing different perspectives of the same scene, but there are also observations coming from different time frames as events develop.
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