The First Detective Novel

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This was my bookgroup’s Christmas read – we like to pick something classic for festive reading. This was a popular choice, as several of us, me included, have read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the real-life Victorian murder case which inspired Collins.

I started reading well before Christmas, but somehow didn’t gel with the book at first, getting rather bogged down in the first fifty or so pages. I found the story of the jewel’s extrication from India in the prologue a little turgid, and then the start of the first segment a bit slow… So I put it down and resumed reading on New Year’s Day. This time it matched my mood and I was able to get into it again easily, and this time I really enjoyed it.

I’m not going to expound on the plot, but this novel of a crime in a country house has a bit of everything. Someone present that night must be the culprit – and we get to meet them all. What is truly original is that the story is told through the testimonies of key characters at the various stages of the plot. Setting the scene and getting a major chunk is Gabriel Betteredge – the Verinder family’s trusted retainer, and he introduces us to all the characters including the virginal Rachel; the prodigal Franklin Blake who brings the Moonstone to the house; the scullery maid with a murky past, Rosanna Spearman; and Franklin’s rival for Rachel’s affections – Godfrey Ablewhite amongst others. Betteredge also introduces us to the useless local bobby, and the brilliantly clever detective Sgt Cuff who soon appears to be getting to the bottom of things once on the case. But even Cuff’s investigations don’t go to plan …

By the way, I read the new Oxford World Classics edition, which has explanatory notes, a chronology, bibliography and an introduction by John Sutherland – which helpfully you are told to read after the novel. (Shouldn’t they have made it an afterword then?).

Those of our book group who finished it also throughly enjoyed it – although I don’t know how Alex managed to cope with reading it on his iphone! I’ve been left rather keen to read more of these sensation novels. Great stuff. (8/10)

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10 thoughts on “The First Detective Novel

  1. It's good, isn't it? Not that great though, I thought – the story doesn't really work in our modern day world, I found – the social structures that made this story believable for a 19thc audience no longer exist. You should read No Name – it's brilliant and the best Wilkie Collins I've read so far.

  2. It is a great novel though I would rave about more of his works to be honest. I agree with Rachel give No Name a whirl and you HAVE to read Armadale its utterly brilliant!One of my friends reads books on her iPhone, I don't get it!

  3. I read this years ago and liked it quite a bit, but it's my least favorite of the Collins novels I've read. I liked The Woman in White and Armadale (especially Armadale!) much more. (I have yet to read No Name) So you have some great reading ahead if you're delving into more Collins!

  4. Thanks for your recommendations everyone – No Name and Armadale are going on the wishlist definitely.I loved the way that they believed they could replicate Franklin's movements on the fateful night! I rather took to Ezra Jennings.

  5. I loved The Moonstone – I read The Suspicions on Mr Whicher straight afterwards and found it fascinating. I haven't read any of his other books yet, but hope to get to The Woman in White soon. I can't imagine reading it on an i phone though!

  6. I agree with Teresa. I enjoyed The Moonstone, but liked Armadale, No Name and The Woman in White far more.Teresa – No Name is easily on a par with Armadale, so you're in for a treat.teutwiWhat fascinates me about The Moonstone is how technology has completely changed the scope of the narrative. Characters are able to zip up to Yorkshire at the drop of a hat, covering a distance that would have taken days a few decades earlier.

  7. I must admit that the advent of the steam age passed me by in the Moonstone – but it does give a certain immediacy to the story – no days of delay while travelling. Admittedly I don't read much set in the 19th C…

  8. I didn't really like Armadale myself by Collins, but I plan to give him another try. I own The Moonstone, so maybe this is the year! Thanks for this review.

  9. Why does the word "teutwi" appear in my comment? Is it some sort of rogue word verification. Very odd.

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