Friday, May 23, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (20 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: The Moonstone, a mysterious gem of India, supposed cursed, brings mayhem, theft, and death to the lives of those who possess it.

“We had our breakfasts--whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast.”
This is the first Wilkie Collins book that I have read and as I was able to get through it and have never been able to get through a Dickens tome (with the exception of A Christmas Carol, which is decidedly un-tome-like) , it looks as if Collins has already pulled ahead in my affections for authors of their time. Collins seems underappreciated to me and I have to wonder if it is because he was operating in the shadow of his friend and contemporary, Dickens. Granted, my impressions of him have been swayed by a reading of Dan Simmons' fictional Drood. What is true from that thoroughly unimpressive book is Collins' opium dependence, which comes across in an alarmingly close and telling manner in The Moonstone. At one point, a character with a dark history and an issue with the nefarious drug, gives an extensive account of the effects. They are so intimate and accurate, you can't help but feel a little uncomfortable, considering the author's history.

The Moonstone is a classic detective story- a whodunnit of the old tradition. Agatha Christie probably cut her reading teeth on it. Daphne DuMaurier must have curled up in a bay window, rain pelting against the outside, and devoured this tale of robbery, blackmail, and mayhem. The mark of a great mystery, in my mind, is when it pushes the reader to feverishly try and solve it before the characters get around to the task. I had a running list of ten possibilities, each shifting up or down the list and morphing as the pages turned. There were at least two shock-worthy moments where the story took completely unexpected turns. I can't imagine how this must have driven readers mad when this was first published in serialized form. So many miniature cliff-hangers! How did they bear the wait between editions? 

Collins's use of unreliable first-person narrators throughout kept you guessing what was truth, what impression, and what was outright untruth. While I have great praise for nearly all of them, I am especially obsessed with Miss Clack. She was absolutely hilarious. Why is she forgotten when we list the great comic moments of canonized literature? I was sad when her part of the narrative ended, but its briefness gave a great roundness to an otherwise very straightforward plot.

On the negative side, but keeping in mind the time when it was written, there is the classic Oriental fetish of the Victorians at play here. I mean, a cursed Indian stone- undercover Brahmin traveling jugglers- mystical Hindu ceremonies? Yeah, okay. I get it. The colonies are the heart of darkness. The Temple of Doom is now. But still, that was the stuff of romps in the day. It is telling and intriguing to look at the culture through the prism of its popular media. 

I am going to be passing this along to my mother and grandmother, fans of Jane Eyre and crime stories, respectively. Bordering on gothic and thoroughly intriguing and delightful with its touch of the tragic and mystical, it's a great read. If you can't get through Dickens, maybe you should hang out with one of his best friends. If the popularity isn't there, the technique and imagination certainly meet, if not surpass those of the famous champion of the poor.

Shelf Status: Passing along
If you liked The Moonstone, you may like: Rebecca, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turning of the Screw

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