July 10, 2003

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

I think I first read this book when I was 12 or 13. I know I wasn't in high school yet because I had to borrow my father's library card and check it out. The library where I grew up had a rule that children were not allowed to take out "adult" books and Dad got a card just to get around that rule. It was the same summer I read Jane Eyre, Rebecca by DuMaurier and Oliver Twist. Oh, and The Robe by Thomas Costain. The plots of all those novels stuck in my head until adulthood but, strangely, I could remember nothing about this one except that it fascinated me and I devoured almost in one sitting.

The story revolves around a huge yellow diamond, the Moonstone, that was looted sometime in the past from a Hindu shrine during a British campaign. The Brahmin protectors of the shrine vow to recover it and thru time have watched over the owners of the stone waiting for their chance to steal it back.

That is all background. The stone has now been left as an inheritance to a young woman, Rachel Verinder, for her 18th birthday by her weird old uncle and the suggestion is that it is more of a curse than a gift. It's brought to her country manor home by Franklin Blake, the young man that she is falling in love with. "Hindoo" jugglers are in the neighborhood, coincidentally, and perform for her party. That very night the stone is stolen from her bedchamber, and Rachel rejects the attentions of Franklin Blake and leaves in an emotional tizzy for London, refusing to allow the police to question her or search her possessions. No one can figure out how the stone is stolen since no one was in her room. The Hindoo jugglers are taken into custody but no stone is found. Hmmmm.....Oh, yes, the young housemaid, who also happens to be in love with Franklin Blake, acts suspiciously and then commits suicide by throwing herself into quicksand.

As a plot goes, it's ok. There were several times I found myself wishing that Collins would move it along just a little faster than he does. And from a modern perspective he's slightly racist when describing the Indians. But the way he tells the story is the juiciest part. He fragments the Narrator into several people by setting the book up as a memoir of the mystery told by those involved. The first narrator is Betteredge, the house head servant whose voice is the perfect rendition of what you might expect a butler to use. He uses a distant cousin, Miss Clack, to tell part of the story. She's an ardent lover of religious tracts and her single minded desire to convert the damned is so humorously portrayed I snickered almost against my will thru the whole thing. Sergeant Cuff is wonderful as the objective observer policeman and he comes closest to figuring out the crime. He's abrupt and to the point and reminded me a bit of Columbo in a 19th century portrayal.

The end and solution, which I won't tell because it IS a mystery, is a little outrageous. He could have done something more creative with it. But it does introduce the character of Ezra Jennings, the solitary doctor addicted to laudanum for some unspecified disease who finally figures it all out and cracks the mystery.

I like 19c novels. I can usually overlook their flaws just because I enjoy the writing so much. This one was no different. But it also could hold its own with a modern British detective mystery.

Posted by Deb English at July 10, 2003 05:26 PM