by Wilkie Collins
Described by T.S. Elliott as ‘the first and greatest of English detective novels’, The Moonstone is a long but very readable book.
The story begins in 1799, when a Yellow Diamond is stolen in India, by a British soldier, during the battle for Seringapatam. It is brought back to England and is eventually given to stubborn heiress Rachel Verinder on her birthday. It goes missing that very night.
The celebrated Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, whose real passion seems to be for the growing of roses, is brought in to solve the mystery.
The story is told as a series of narrations by some of the principal characters. These serve to really bring the characters to life and to give a much more rounded experience than just the plot.
Betteredge, the old family retainer, is the first narrator and, at over 200 pages, the longest. His character comes through in his loyalty to the family he works for. His love for, and belief in, Robinson Crusoe is amusing. It is not merely a book but a way to live your life, according to Betteredge.
His narrative does sometimes get a little tedious. He can be charming and humorous but his overlong ramblings takes its toll. I found my own mind wandering. However once Sergeant Cuff arrived the book perks up immeasurably. The dialogue is much snappier, the plot moving along, much sharper, more engrossing.
Miss Clack the self-righteous second narrator is laugh-out-loud funny with her clumsy attempts to foist her beliefs on anybody and everybody whether they are willing or not.
There also follows narrations by other characters. The different perspectives give a fresh feel to the book, also you are never quite sure if you can trust the narratives: after all someone is guilty.
The story is full of clues, red-herrings and misdirections. The denouement is excellent. But it is not only a detective novel, it is also a love story and a reflection on the times.
Sometimes the language feels dated but as it is 150 years old, that is hardly surprising. It is certainly not PC. Having said that some things never change; as Betteredge says, speaking of Rosanna coming to work for his lady:
“Rosanna had been a thief, and not being the sort that get up Companies in the City, and rob thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her…”