Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I have just finished reading The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. T. S. Eliot called it "the first and greatest of English detective novels." I don't know if it was the first, but I do think it is one of the greatest mysteries of all time. I read it a few year ago purely as a "reader", and was charmed by it. I read it a few days ago as a writer, and once again became enthralled as a reader.This is not a usual book review. This is a share of one of my favorite reads of all time.

First of all, it was refreshing to read again a mystery that was primarily a mystery. No graphic details about the amount of blood or bruising around the wound. No dwelling on layers of skin and vivid descriptions of abrasions, so typical of today's crime novel. The story was about the moonstone: Who stole it? Why? Where did it go?

There are layers of mystery and multiple mysteries all through the book to tweak your imagination and send you on a new train of thought, just when you think you know what is going on. Individuals have their little mysteries, and you get drawn into them: What did Rosanna really know, and why did she act so strangely and pretend to be ill when she wasn't? Why wouldn't Rachel speak to Franklin, even though he was trying so hard to find the diamond? Why was Godfrey willing to propose to a woman he knew loved someone else?

Some of the characters in this book are unforgettable: Mr. Betteridge, the faithful, humble butler whose attitude toward serving the Herncastle family raises it to the level of a veritable calling, and who reads prophecies into the paragraphs he marks in Robinson Crusoe. Miss Clack, the poor cousin and fanatic who spends a whole afternoon tiptoeing through Mrs. Verinder's London house depositing religious tracts among plants, behind sheet music on the piano, under unfinished embroidery work, and even in the pocket of a dressing-gown, and who doles out unremitting forgiveness to those who invite her to leave or slam doors in her face. Rosanna Spearman, the hapless maid who pines for Franklin Blake, although he loves Rachel Herncastle. The melancholy Sergeant Cuff who surely is a forerunner of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes with his eye for footprints and his use of a magnifying glass and his ability to notice details and make shrewd predictions. And gruff Mr. Bruff, the family lawyer who unsentimentally looks out for Rachel Verinder's interests. These characters were so well drawn through their own eyes and through the eyes of others that they linger on long after the book is closed.

The two main characters were refreshing in how they defied stereotype: Franklin Blake is actually a rather shallow rich person who solves problems by traveling sadly around the continent. And yet (and this gives away nothing about the plot) somehow he has won the heart of Rachel. Rachel Verinder is unduly outspoken and decisive for a Victorian era young lady of her station. All through the mystery, their relationship seesaws and adds layers to the search for the diamond's whereabouts that Bettinger, Bruff, Cuff, and a sad-eyed medical assistant, Ezra Jennings, attempt to solve.

And to make the tale even more delightful to read, an underlying thread of humor runs through the book, all 522 pages. True, the story unfolds slowly, through the multiple viewpoints of some of the characters above. Slowly and leisurely. This isn't an afternoon read -- or even one of those "I couldn't put it down and read all through the night" books. It's a delicious book to be savored, bit by bit, full of chuckles in every chapter, and piquing interest on every page. It's a reminder that nothing beats a good read for pleasure, and I'm so glad I took the time to revisit this gem.


Lia Keyes said...

I've been revisiting Jane Eyre by Bronte and experiencing the same sense of awe and delight at the sheer storytelling ability that we no longer use the same way. Thanks for remind me about The Moonstone. I loved its exoticism when I was a teen!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Ah, Jane Eyre was another favorite. It's been awhile since I read that. When time permits, I must revisit that book too! Reading is one of life's great delights. How ever did people manage without books!

Rachna Chhabria said... have now tempted me to go in search of this book. Sounds like a book I would love to read more than once.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Hi, Rachna, It does invite re-reads. I liked it the first time and even more the second time. And I'll probably read it again in the future!

Deedee said...

I loved reading your blog and after reading about this book, I totally would like to read it too! It was wonderful to meet you Mitty. I will be visiting your blog regularly!