September 7, 2011

The Moonstone (#98)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

What I said then:

A classic Victorian novel ... but I hate Victorian novels. Most of them, anyway.

What I say now:

Yikes, I actually finished this nearly a week ago, but with the packing/moving/unpacking/"hey-where-did-I-put-that-really-important-thingy?" madness that's been going on in my life, I haven't had a chance to sit down and yarn about it. (I live in Port Melbourne now, in a rather lovely Edwardian terrace house, and my books have made the journey safely. I was tempted to 'lose' one or two of the things I'm most dreading having to read --- *cough* D.H. Lawrence *cough* --- but it would've felt too much like cheating.)

So: The Moonstone. No less an authority than T.S. Eliot described it as 'the first, the longest, and the best of all English detective novels' ... though, is a modernist poet really an authority on thrillers? In brief, a dying scoundrel bequeathes his niece, Miss Rachel Verinder, a ransacked Indian jewel on her eighteenth birthday, which goes missing that very night. Among the suspects are her two suitors, a reformed thief now working in the house as a servant, and three mysterious Indians who turned up in the town just as the stone did.

Collins tells the story in a succession of first-person narratives as several different people describe their relation to the jewel and the hunt for it, and the shifting points-of-view are probably the greatest strength of the book. Each narrator has a distinctive voice, which Collins nails, but even more than that, each has a distinctive take on the crime, on life, and on the other people involved. Facts us readers thought we could rely on are subsequently thrown into doubt, and the initial portrayals of certain characters are shown to be wildly inaccurate. The way Collins uses his multiple narrators to toy with our perceptions is brilliant sleight-of-hand, and has been much copied since (I'm sure it was done before Collins, too ... if you're better read than me and know by whom, leave me a note in the comments).

The case of the lost jewel is intriguing, but Collins goes one better by successfully linking the search for the truth about the theft with the search for the truth about Miss Verinder's love-life. The book ends up being as much about her attempts to find happiness as it is about any ginormous diamond, and is all the better for it. While being utterly central to the plot, she is not one of our narrators, so her actions --- both to do with the lost diamond and her two suitors --- are left unexplained until the last moments of the novel.

If there's one weakness, it's the ending. In order to fit everything together, Collins resorts to a device which, to a modern reader, comes across as slightly fantastical. After the rigorous realism of the first three quarters of the book, it felt like a let-down to me, and even a bit of a cheat. Which, seeings as this is a mystery novel, should probably kind of ruin it. I had so much fun up to that point though (the first narrator, a cantankerous old servant who's obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, is hilarious), that I'm willing to forgive.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Drood by Dan Simmons (which is narrated by none other than a fictionalised Wilkie Collins. Coincidence? I think not!)
books to go: 97

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