Book Review of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins





As The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was first published in 1868, it is well and truly out of copyright and you can get a digital copy free from the Project Gutenberg or at very low cost from Amazon. Paper copies are widely available at various price points as are audio editions. Widely considered to be the first detective novel (as opposed to crime fiction in the form of short stories), the plot centres around Rachel Verinder, who is given a priceless, but troublesome diamond on her 18th birthday. The diamond is certainly not this girl’s best friend and it quickly threatens to cost her both her love and her chance of living a happy and fulfilled life.

Characters

Unlike many detective novels, indeed many novels in general, there’s no real, single main character in the book, at least not in my opinion. Some of the characters get more page time than others and these are generally the ones who play the key roles in the story, but there’s nobody you could really say was the central protagonist, not even Rachel Verinder, who is the catalyst for most of the action. One of the great features of The Moonstone is that it is told by a group of first-person narrators ranging from an aged butler (Gabriel Betteredge) to a young adventurer (Franklin Blake). This gives the book the immediacy and intimacy of first-person narration, while also maintaining the suspense needed for an effective mystery story. Even people who don’t get to narrate directly often get to speak in their own words, for example through letters. While the main characters are mainly upper class, there is a fair sprinkling of middle-class characters and even a few lower-class ones and most are well-rounded and well-drawn, certainly all the key players are real and engaging. Some of the minor characters are more in the line of caricatures, such as Drusilla Clack, who is essentially set up to be the book’s pantomime villainess.

Setting

The book is mainly divided between a country house in Yorkshire and a town house in London. Having said that, this is very much an “indoor novel” in the sense that the plot is driven by human interactions, the vast majority of which take place indoors and even when they are outdoors, the scenery is not really given much, if any, of a mention. The book is contemporary to the period in which it was written and published (the late 19th century) but the language and plot are all completely accessible and overall the story is still very engaging even for modern readers.

Plot

Colonel Herncastle, a man of reputable family but disreputable morals, gifts his niece Rachel Verinder a priceless diamond, called The Moonstone, for her 18th birthday. Shortly after she receives it, the stone disappears and its disappearance understandably causes friction within the household. The police are called in, but fail to recover the jewel. Rachel Verinder’s mother, Julia, Lady Verinder, dies with the mystery still unsolved and without her guidance and protection the grieving and somewhat naive Rachel becomes easy prey for gold-digging men. Fortunately, the family lawyer Mr. Bruff is there to help her out of an engagement to a man whom Mr Bruff believes (with good reason) will destroy her happiness and whom she has never loved, since she still has feelings for her cousin Franklin Blake, even though she believes him to be responsible for the theft of the Moonstone.

Overall impression

At first reading, the mystery will probably keep you completely engaged (and I suspect there will be very few people will guess the ending) but even when you know the plot there’s still a lot to enjoy, especially the range of utterly believable characters the author creates. The writing is also compelling, particularly the descriptions of opium addiction, which were sensational at the time.

In short

Obviously some aspects of The Moonstone have dated over the years, especially attitudes towards women and people who were not white, but since The Moonstone had a pretty modern outlook for its time it hasn’t dated as much as you might expect. Engaging characters and strong writing keep The Moonstone a very enjoyable read even today.

Verdict - Get it on digital and keep it.

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