Books aren’t hailed as classics, and don’t stay in print for 150 years, without good reason. Sometimes the challenge a reader faces is to find that reason. The Moonstone is a good example of this challenge – without it coming so highly recommended by a wide cross section of authors and critics I highly doubt I would have persisted with this Wilkie Collins novel to the end, nor felt so disappointed when I reached that point.
Often described as the original detective story, published in 1868, the eponymous moonstone is a fabled Indian diamond. The diamond is stolen from a temple by a dissolute army officer, and eventually left as a bequest to his niece. On the night she receives it it is stolen, and the primary part of the narrative is an investigation into the theft.
What struck me as remarkable about the story is how so many things don’t happen. A servant commits suicide, and remarkably doesn’t re-emerge months later having faked her death with the aid of accomplices. Who would have seen that one coming? A wily old detective from London is recruited to investigate the theft, after bumbling local constables make a mess of the initial investigation, and he doesn’t solve the mystery. There is no neat, it all make sense solution to the mystery, which is only explained by a combination of people behaving in ways we have been explicitly assured they would not, and some remarkable coincidences of which most mystery writers would be ashamed. I am not telling you too much when I reveal that the theft itself is committed by one of the house guests – shock – acting under the influence of laudanum, which had been administered by a medical acquaintance in a bizarre and to be honest utterly unbelievable “prank”. As the number of house guests is very small, the pool of candidates doesn’t leave the reader guessing for too long.
So what is there in this novel that can justify its status? Let me try. Firstly, the bulk of the narrative is told as a first person record by two of the relatively peripheral characters – a servant at the country house, and a spinster relative of the family. This unusual technique gives the reader more of a fly on the wall perspective – they see a lot of the action without participating in it – but an equally flawed vision – there is much they either don’t see, or don’t understand. The reader is able to decode their misunderstandings and misjudgments fairly easily – this is not a complex narrative in the sense of having to work out what is going on.
The conventions of the country house crime were not entrenched in Collins’s time, and to an extent he establishes many of them here, although as I have said above only to a very limited sense – for example the locked room “mystery” at the end of the novel lasts for a few seconds until the ladder out of the ceiling is spotted!.
Other than these admittedly limited reasons I confess I am struggling to explain the mystery of why this novel is considered a classic.