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The Moonstone

Page history last edited by Jon 12 years, 3 months ago

Collins, Wilkie - The Moonstone

 

THE MOONSTONE (Wilkie Collins - 1868)...or, The Perils of Giving up Smoking

 

The sub - title I have given this is a spoiler to the plot, but that should be no more of an issue here than the revelation to mystery fans that Stapleton was the villain in “Hound of the Baskervilles” or that the narrator of “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” was the murderer.

 

Franklin Blake, having given up his cigars because his to - be fiancée didn't like the smell on his clothes, then went through the agonies of nicotine deprivation (and I can swear that the author knew what he was talking about, having myself undergone the very symptoms he describes). Main plot: Blake had many sleepless nights and became short - tempered. So at the birthday party of his beloved, Rachel Verinder, after he had given her the monstrous jewel he had been committed to present to her by terms of the will of her really nasty uncle (who had stolen the jewel from India), got testy with the jocose local doctor (Candy) who recommended a sleeping palliative. Franklin sneered at that, as at all medicine, so the doctor arranged a practical joke with Franklin's cousin Godfrey Ablewhite, handsome (and smarmy) chairman of a multitude of Ladies' Charitable Institutions for the Suppression of Immorality Amongst the Servant Classes, who was also after poor Rachel.

 

Well, there had been some mysterious Indian road - entertainers hanging around, and almost everybody knew that this jewel had been stolen by the testator from a sacred Hindu temple, from the forehead of the four - armed moon goddess. A ha! Plot thickens. Godfrey managed to dope Franklin's after - dinner brandy with a tincture of opium (laudanum) supplied by the doctor, who wanted to prove the next morning - Did you sleep? Well that was because of the medicine, ha ha, so there. So what happened later that night? Franklin, in an opium trance, stole the jewel from Rachel's dressing room, because he didn't think it was safe there. Still awake, she happened from her bedroom door to see him do it, but she loves him. After that she clams up and interferes with all investigation into the loss of the moonstone because she won't betray him - that also makes her suspect of stealing her own jewel for whatever reasons (owing lots of money to her dressmaker?) Or did the Indians do it, even with all the dogs let loose that night to protect the house?

 

MYSTERY ONE Who took the Moonstone out of Rachel's Dressing Room? * I just explained that (one of the most innovative elements in this plot - at least at that time) * Who solved that puzzle? * Ezra Jennings, the doctor's assistant, who is one of the two detectives in this story. A pathetic character with piebald hair, whom nobody likes, and with an unspecified disgrace in his past. He has a fatal cancer, so knows all about the effects of opium derivatives, using daily ten times the dose that Dr Candy slipped to Franklin, and can still function, and cites the example of the Irish porter, who after being drunk doesn't remember what he did the next day and has to get drunk again to recall where he misplaced a parcel. * So how is that mystery resolved? * By a 'reconstruction of the crime' experiment (one of the first such done in detective fiction). Franklin has to give up smoking again (he'd resumed) and be in sort of the same situation in the same conditions (almost) as before, then given a dose of dope, then see what happens. * What happened? * He did exactly what was expected, and satisfied his girlfriend into forgiving him and giving up her protective obstinacy. But Jennings gave him an overdose, so he falls asleep before he can re - enact what he did with the jewel AFTER he took it from her dressing room. One major flaw: Blake is told ahead of time what had occurred, so surely even in a trance, he would know what to do - hence compromising experimental integrity. Was this then a legitimate experiment? No way, because the subject was already primed as to what he was going to do under the drug. Collins was very scientific in his approach, but didn't really know the rules of unbiased research. And it would have been laughed out of court as 'evidence'. But this is a prime protocol in detective fiction for reconstructing the crime. Three out of Five for Collins on this!

 

Was this done properly in a detective story sense? Emphatically yes. All of the clues were definitely and cleverly presented. The mention of giving up smoking, the results, and the quarrel with the practical - joking doctor were all there plain to see, even if dispersed (as they properly should be in a detective story - the perceptive reader has to connect them). Whether opium affects people that way in reality is irrelevant, it just has to work in the book. [However, Collins himself suffered from severe rheumatism when he was writing this and probably took lots of laudanum, so he'd know. Jennings himself is at his most brilliant when he is totally stoned.] Five out of five stars for this presentation of clues. Absolutely perfectly constructed - there are no loose ends in this part of the plot, nor in all the various sub - plots. Because this is an exceptionally long novel for a detective story, the narrative moves at a more leisurely (but hardly ever dull) pace than modern mystery fans are used to (at least in the days before books again became 500 - pagers). There is also a larger cast of well - developed characters than aficionados normally find, except in the case of series novels where recurring characters build up over several books.

 

Collins, a great friend of Dickens, did not have the equivalent genius for portraying people, although he was a better plot - constructor. But in a rudimentary, and very satisfactory case, in The Moonstone (also in Woman in White), he came up with and well presented some classic 'Dickensian' caricatures, such as Drusilla Clack (she makes one shudder with repulsion and laughter) and Gabriel Betteridge, the butler whose bible is Robinson Crusoe (that's endearingly eccentric rather than gross like Miss Clack, with her habit of secreting uplifting tracts by 'the blessed Miss Jane Ann Stamper' about people's houses). He understood women probably better than any other 19th Century writer (leaving aside the women writers); there are no Jane Austen predatory bimbos in his books, or any shrinking violets, they are real people given the plots they have to live in. And that is high praise for any author, to create characters who can actually live in the situations their author puts them in! That is transcendance and a hallmark of really good writing as opposed to technical skill, descriptive prose, or sheer drama. Protagonists and Villains: Franklin Blake, and the heroine Rachel Verinder, are convincingly presented as straightforward, if rather stubborn and foolish, characters.

 

The mysterious 'Hindoo' Brahmin trio are a major part of the background, like the witches in Macbeth, although they are not individualized apart from a couple of cameo appearances of their leader who speaks good English; their fate is actually rather sad, although they eventually fulfil their mission of recovering the sacred stone. Godfrey Ablewhite, who is the ultimately guilty party, is not so much a villain as a consummate hyprocrite who preys on gullible single women. His end is somewhat melodramatic and not quite in keeping with his earlier presentation - but this is OK in mystery fiction.

 

The detectives, Sergeant Cuff and Ezra Jennings, are interesting. Cuff is a precursor of Sherlock Holmes and some of the more civilized Inspectors of later authors. He is presented as a professional cop, although defined also as a rose - fancier - a later - to - be - standard approach to thumbnailing the character of a detecive by some ancillary interests outside detection. Jennings is more along the lines of the pathetically flawed amateur. (He is ugly, has an uspecified scandal in his past, a drug addict, and not well liked by anybody.) * Two typical 'Cuffisms': o “Can you guess yet,” inquired Mr Franklin, “who has stolen the diamond?” “Nobody has stolen the diamond,” answered Sergeant Cuff. o A dialogue between Cuff and Supt. Seegrave, the local cop: “I have abstained from expressing any option, so far,” says Mr Superintendent, with his military voice still in good working order. “I have now only one remark to offer, on leaving this case in your hands. There is such a thing, Sergeant, as making a mountain out of a molehill. Good morning.” “There is also such a thing as making nothing out of a molehill, in consequence of your head being too high to see it.”

 

Secondary Characters: Many of the stereotypes of mystery fiction were established or reinforced by Collins in this book. (a) Mathew Bruff, the close - mouthed lawyer who is involved behind the scenes in all the family secrets. (b) Septimus Luker ('filthy lucre', get it?), the unscrupulous money lender behind the shenanigans involving the diamond. (c) Superintendent Seegrave, the local police chief, an incompetent. (d) Doctor Candy, the practical - joking quack. (e) Mr Murthwaite, the Indian explorer/adventurer, provider of background about the jewel and its ultimate fate. (f) Colonel Herncastle (off stage but fully described), the originator of all this, who looted the diamond from the temple, committing murder in the process. (g) Betteridge the butler, a narrator, a stodge but admirably human. (h) Miss Clack, another narrator, a snotty do - gooder. (i) Lady Verinder, the Colonel's sister and his 'victim' (he left the jewel to her daughter, knowing that it would cause trouble, because Lady V. had snubbed him), a very respectable lady who doesn't want any scandal. And a large cast of filler characters who define themselves in vignettes. Probably the most interesting and moving character is the housemaid Rosanna Spearman. A convicted professional thief, having served her sentence and now charitably employed by Rachel's mother, Rosanna is physically unattractive, slightly deformed (hunchbacked), and hopelessly in love with Blake. Her actions (she had witnessed Blake's activity on the fateful night) were to cover up, including hiding Blake's nightgown, which had got wet paint on it from the recently decorated door of Rachel's boudoir. All of this secondary plot development is solved by Cuff in a brilliant piece of straightforward detection. Blake is off - handedly if unintentionally cruel to her, leading to her sad fate. She comes to a dramatic suicidal end in shoreline quicksand - the midbook 'crisis' that keeps the long narrative going, and provides a dividing point between the two mysteries. Four out of Five stars to Collins for characterization.

 

MYSTERY TWO * Who stole the diamond and pawned it to a London money - lender (Luker)? * Godfrey Ablewhite. Blake, in his trance, actually handed it over to him, saying 'hide this somewhere'! * What was his motive? * He had embezzled a lot of money as a trustee, which he lavished on his mistress, and needs desperately to make good before his ward comes of age. Attempts to land a rich wife keep coming to grief, so Blake's gesture is a windfall (though how he expected Blake not to reveal him is a puzzle). * Who solved this mystery? * Sergeant Cuff, now retired from Scotland Yard and acting as a private investigator. An interesting point from a detective novel stance is that he had come up with the wrong solution to Mystery One, accusing Rachel of stealing her own jewel. *

 

The false solution to Mystery One: Everything pointing to that solution is logical and well clued, including the actions of Rosanna Spearman. Cuff proposed that Rachel stole the diamond to pay off some unknown debt (something very possible since she refuses to say anything at all about the crime or circumstances, and tries to hamper the investigation). Rosanna was an accomplice, based on her position of being a reformed professional crook with connections to fences, etc. Her actions in covering up for Blake would fit just as well to her covering up for Rachel. It's just that this solution is wrong. A plot device (misdirection) often used in later detective fiction. * The reason for reopening the investigation is the vindication of Rachel Verinder by the revelations of Ezra Jennings re Franklin Blake.

 

The Moonstone is in three parts: (1) The events of the night of the theft and its aftermath, taking place along the bleak North Sea shore in Yorkshire, then Cuff's false solution, (2) a longish period of time where Rachel and Franklin split, she becomes engaged to Godfrey, Lady Verinder dies, Rachel and Godfrey split, Sgt. Cuff retires from Scotland Yard, and Ezra Jennings comes up with his clarification, and (3) the tracking down of the diamond (London and India). Once the mystery of what happened up in the Yorkshire country house has been resolved, the last third of the book moves very quickly into a manhunt - based thriller, as opposed to the prior Gothic - novelistic sections. The book was published in serial form, as usual for the times, and was issued as a book in three volumes; I don't know where the original divisions were, but the story is still tripartite. Many readers find the central portion somewhat dragging (too many events, not enough directly described action). Collins was very ill at this time and perhaps glossed over a lot. His revised edition a year later at least made sure that the clockworks of the plot meshed perfectly.

 

Narrative Technique: The story is told after the fact by various characters who were involved in the events, at the instigation of Franklin Blake, who 'commissions' those he thinks are the proper people to tell their part of the story as objective observers. He explicitly enjoins them not to reveal anything after the fact, or speak about anything they were not directly involved in. This results in a very effective way of presenting the story: not only do you get different slants on the characters and events because of the shifting points of view, but you get a proper presentation mode for straight fact vs emotional involvement where it counts for narrative flow. Hence the very long narrative by Betteridge (the prime narrator), who tells the main story from the point of view of one who was closely involved emotionally with the household, but not a protagonist, and Blake himself, who of course is the most affected and self - interested personage; the intermediate - length narratives by Miss Clack, an extremely prejudiced 'outside' observer who turns the story upside - down very effectively, and by Jennings, who not only solves the mystery but does so in a nice pathetic sub - plot involving his own character; and finally several short summary pieces by Bruff, Cuff, and others to fill in the details and fast - action bits that don't need going into in depth. Dorothy Sayers pointed out that this is a very old - fashioned technique for narration compared with the modern (early 20th century) developments of point - of - view in fiction, and that it is hardly convincing that a butler, say, would ever have written such a thing (or in my opinion that even as insensitive a person as Miss Clack would have been so naively self - condemning). But she admits that it is an 'ideal truth' - the sort of thing the character would be expected to produce if he/she were to express it coherently and characteristically. That's good enough for me: we don't need to get into Drusilla Clack's head as we do with Molly Bloom's. And Collins's method is more convincing than the first - person memoirs of American private eyes, who for one thing should be too busy making their living than writing books.

 

For detective - story writers, the technique is also useful for presenting clues without being either too obvious or too devious about it: In first person, if there is a perceived clue then it is implausible not to have it acted upon immediately or, worse, withheld from the reader; in 'omniscient author' that problem is compounded because the clue has to be presented to the reader and yet not stick out like a sore thumb - that takes great skill. Note: If you are an aspiring author of historical mystery stories, there is a ready - made character you can use as your detective (with a setting about 20 years after 1848 - 9, the period Moonstone is set in: Octavius Guy (aka “Gooseberry” because of his protuberant eyes), who was a 'Baker Street Irregular' for Sergeant Cuff. “One of these days, that boy will do great things in my... profession. He is the brightest and cleverest little chap I have met with, for many a long year past.”

 

Wyatt James


A

The famous first English detective story.  One can see the influence on Doyle (esp. The Sign of Four —stolen Indian jewel, dishonourable soldiers, fanatics returned from India to claim treasure, murder with entry through trap-door) and Sayers (the use of documents and letters, characters telling their story in their own words—and the narrative of the religious spinster, Miss Clack: The Documents in the Case).

Apart from being of historical interest, it stands up very well on its own merits.  Like a lot of Victorian novels, it bogs down in the middle; and Collins isn’t Dickens (who was?).  Both the beginning and the ending are absorbing—it’s only the endless scenes with Miss Clack, amusing at first but very soon irritating, that drag.  The style is more modern and flatter than Dickens’s, lacking his gusto and humour, and less evocative than Doyle, and the characters are less memorable (more subdued and naturalistic) than either’s.  However, the plot is much tighter than Dickens’s—properly clued (lots of footnotes to check a remark in an earlier chapter, obviously an innovation of which Collins was very proud), and the famous solution, involving opium and somnambulism, is ingenious—the ancestor of the scientific approach in Freeman and Rhode.

 

Nick Fuller

 

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