The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins opens with a copy of a family paper from an unnamed source. The writer and his cousin, John Herncastle, were soldiers in the English battle for Seringapatam, India, in 1799. The night before, stories were told by the men in the camp about various treasures to be found there, especially one called the moonstone, a large yellow diamond in the forehead of a statue of a moon god. The narrative tells of the history and legend of the stone, including three Brahmins who were supposed to keep it under constant watch and “certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him.” After the battle, the narrator and his cousin were charged with keeping the men from looting, but the narrator came across his cousin in a room with the diamond in his hand and two dead and one dying Indian at his feet. Though the narrator knew his cousin had stolen the diamond and killed the men, he could not prove it since he had not actually seen it done, so he didn’t bring it to the authorities. He did, however, turn his back on his cousin and has written this narrative to explain to the family why he has done so. The family in turn turned their back on John. The narrator concludes, “Although I attach no sort of credit to the fantastic Indian legend of the gem, I must acknowledge, before I conclude, that I am influenced by a certain superstition of my own in this matter. It is my conviction, or my delusion, no matter which, that crime brings its own fatality with it. I am not only persuaded of Herncastle’s guilt; I am even fanciful enough to believe that he will live to regret it, if he keeps the Diamond; and that others will live to regret taking it from him, if he gives the Diamond away. ”
Fast forward 50 years or so, and John Herncastle tries to visit his sister and her daughter. His sister refuses to see him. He retreats, but leaves the diamond to his sister’s daughter, Rachel, in his will. Rachel’s birthday is coming up, and her cousin Franklin Blake has been assigned to bring the diamond to her for the occasion. Knowing the diamond’s history, he is unsure whether giving it to Rachel is the best thing to do, but after consulting with longtime friend and family butler, Gabriel Betteredge, they conclude that giving it to her is the only thing that can be done.
So Franklin gives her the diamond and fastens a little setting so she can wear it on her blouse. And who should crash the party but three traveling Indian jugglers, who can’t escape seeing the diamond.
The next morning, it’s discovered that the diamond is missing, stolen out of Rachel’s room. The Indians are the first suspected, but they have an alibi. Rachel is strangely uncommunicative about the incident.
The story continues from there with various people being suspected and cleared, various family secrets coming forth, and finally the mystery revealed.
The Moonstone is considered by many to be the first detective novel written (Poe wrote mysteries, but they were short stories) and contains many elements that soon became standards of the genre: bumbling local police, a famous detective with eccentricities, false leads, , the “least likely” suspect being the perpetrator, a plot twist, and the detective summing everything up and filling in the missing pieces at the end. The detective is oddly missing in the middle of the novel, but Franklin Blake pursues the mystery, and even Gabriel Betteredge confesses to getting “detective fever.”
The story is written as a series of accounts requested by Blake from various people of what they saw and experienced, so in a sense the reader gets to consider the evidence and play detective along the way.
I thought the story dragged a bit in the middle, when the accounts there seemed to have little to do with the diamond theft: later, however, the reason for those seemingly unrelated details comes to the forefront. Like Dickens, with whom Collins was friends and for whose magazine he wrote, there are no extraneous details or characters: everything fits into the plot, though it doesn’t always make sense until the end. The latter third of the book really picked up the action and I found it hard to put down at that point. The story was originally published monthly in Dickens’ magazine, and at the end of many chapters I thought Collins showed great skill in ending the chapter on a note that would makes readers breathless until the next installment. I was glad I didn’t have to wait a month between chapters! I also thought Collins shone in having characters reveal details about themselves unawares and seemingly contradicting what they meant to reveal about themselves..
The Moonstone and The Woman in White are considered the best of Collins’ novels. I had read the latter a couple of years ago and consequently wanted to read more of Collins, but shied away from this one because I wasn’t sure how much superstition about the stone would play a part in it. But that turned out to be a very minor part of the story, mainly contained in the first section about its history. As the first narrator said, ” crime brings its own fatality,” and the book mainly deals with the crimes along the way of the moonstone’s history.
Though I normally enjoy reading analysis in Sparknotes, I thought they were a little off in a couple of places concerning this book. Here they say the story is “a novel in which women don’t speak often and therefore do not have a distinctive presence.” But the women spoke quite often – one of the major narrators is a woman. And they assert that the moonstone is symbolic of Rachel’s femininity and virginity and the theft of it from her room symbolic of her “deflowering.” But I saw no reason to associate it as such, especially as she is not “deflowered” in the incident.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)