The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins is a 19th-century British epistolary novel. It is generally considered to be the first detective novel, and it established many of the ground rules of the modern detective novel. The story was originally serialised in Charles Dickens's magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are widely considered to be Collins's best novels, and Collins adapted The Moonstone for the stage in 1877, although the play was performed for only two months.
First edition title page
|Published||1868 (book form)|
|Text||The Moonstone at Wikisource|
The Moonstone of the title is a diamond (not to be confused with the semi-precious moonstone gem). It has gained its name from its association with the Hindu god of the moon, Chandra. It is protected by three hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu, and waxes and wanes in brilliance along with the light of the moon.
Rachel Verinder, a young English woman, inherits a large Indian diamond on her eighteenth birthday. It is a legacy from her uncle, a corrupt British army officer who served in India. The diamond is of great religious significance and extremely valuable, and three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering it. The story incorporates elements of the legendary origins of the Hope Diamond (or perhaps the Orloff Diamond or the Koh-i-Noor diamond). Rachel's eighteenth birthday is celebrated with a large party at which the guests include her cousin Franklin Blake. She wears the Moonstone on her dress that evening for all to see, including some Indian jugglers who have called at the house. Later that night the diamond is stolen from Rachel's bedroom, and a period of turmoil, unhappiness, misunderstandings and ill luck ensues. Told by a series of narratives from some of the main characters, the complex plot traces the subsequent efforts to explain the theft, identify the thief, trace the stone and recover it.
Colonel Herncastle, an unpleasant former soldier, brings the Moonstone back with him from India where he acquired it by theft and murder during the Siege of Seringapatam. Angry at his family, who shun him, he leaves it in his will as a birthday gift to his niece Rachel, thus exposing her to attack by the stone's hereditary guardians, who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
Rachel wears the stone to her birthday party, but that night it disappears from her room. Suspicion falls on three Indian jugglers who have been near the house; on Rosanna Spearman, a maidservant who begins to act oddly and who then drowns herself in a local quicksand; and on Rachel herself, who also behaves suspiciously and is suddenly furious with Franklin Blake, with whom she has previously appeared to be enamoured, when he directs attempts to find it. Despite the efforts of Sergeant Cuff, a renowned detective, the house party ends with the mystery unsolved, and the protagonists disperse.
During the ensuing year there are hints that the diamond was removed from the house and may be in a London bank vault, having been pledged as surety to a moneylender. The Indian jugglers are still nearby, watching and waiting. Rachel's grief and isolation increase, especially after her mother dies, and she first accepts and then rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin Godfrey Ablewhite, a philanthropist who was also present at the birthday dinner and whose father owns the bank near Rachel's old family home. Finally Franklin Blake returns from traveling abroad and determines to solve the mystery. He first discovers that Rosanna Spearman's behavior was due to her having fallen in love with him. She found evidence (a paint smear on his nightclothes) that convinced her that he was the thief and concealed it to save him, confusing the trail of evidence and throwing suspicion on herself. In despair at her inability to make him acknowledge her despite all she had done for him, she committed suicide, leaving behind the smeared gown and a letter he did not receive at the time because of his hasty departure abroad.
Now believing that Rachel suspects him of the theft on Rosanna's evidence, Franklin engineers a meeting and asks her. To his astonishment she tells him she actually saw him steal the diamond and has been protecting his reputation at the cost of her own even though she believes him to be a thief and a hypocrite. With hope of redeeming himself he returns to Yorkshire to the scene of crime and is befriended by Mr. Candy's assistant, Mr. Ezra Jennings. They join together to continue the investigations and learn that Franklin was secretly given laudanum during the night of the party (by the doctor, Mr. Candy, who wanted revenge on Franklin for criticising medicine); it appears that this, in addition to his anxiety about Rachel and the diamond and other nervous irritations, caused him to take the diamond in a narcotic trance, to move it to a safe place. A re-enactment of the evening's events confirms this, but how the stone ended up in a London bank remains a mystery solved only a year after the birthday party when the stone is redeemed. Franklin and his allies trace the claimant to a seedy waterside inn, only to discover that the Indians have got there first: the claimant is dead and the stone is gone. Under the dead man's disguise is none other than Godfrey Ablewhite, who is found to have embezzled the contents of a trust fund in his care and to have been facing exposure soon after the birthday party. The mystery of what Blake did while in his drugged state is solved: he encountered Ablewhite in the passageway outside Rachel's room and gave the Moonstone to him to be put back in his father's bank, from which it had been withdrawn on the morning of the party to be given to Rachel. Seeing his salvation, Ablewhite pocketed the stone instead, and pledged it as surety for a loan to save himself temporarily from insolvency. When he was murdered, he was on his way to Amsterdam to have the stone cut; it would then have been sold to replenish the plundered trust fund before the beneficiary inherited.
The mystery is solved, Rachel and Franklin marry, and in an epilogue from Mr. Murthwaite, a noted adventurer, the reader learns of the restoration of the Moonstone to the place where it should be, in the forehead of the statue of the god in India.
- Rachel Verinder – the heroine of the story, a young heiress; on her eighteenth birthday she inherits the Moonstone
- Lady Verinder – her mother, a wealthy widow, devoted to her daughter
- Colonel Herncastle – Lady Verinder's brother, suspected of foul deeds in India; gained the Moonstone by unlawful means
- Gabriel Betteredge – a venerable man, the Verinders' head servant, first narrator
- Penelope Betteredge – his daughter, also a servant in the household
- Rosanna Spearman – second housemaid, once in a penitentiary for theft, suspected of the theft of the diamond
- Drusilla Clack – a poor cousin of Rachel Verinder, an unpleasant hypocritical Christian evangelist and meddler, second narrator
- Franklin Blake – an adventurer, also cousin and suitor of Rachel
- Godfrey Ablewhite – a philanthropist, another cousin, and suitor, of Rachel
- Mr. Bruff – a family solicitor, third narrator
- Sergeant Cuff – a famous detective with a penchant for roses
- Dr Candy – the family physician, loses the ability to speak coherently after recovering from a fever
- Ezra Jennings – Dr Candy's unpopular and odd-looking assistant, suffers from an incurable illness and uses opium to control the pain, fourth narrator
- Mr Murthwaite – a noted adventurer who has travelled frequently in India; he provides the epilogue to the story
- The Indian jugglers – three disguised Hindu Brahmins who are determined to recover the diamond.
The book is regarded by some as the precursor of the modern mystery novel and the suspense novel. T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe," and Dorothy L. Sayers praised it as "probably the very finest detective story ever written". In "The Victorian Age in Literature" G. K. Chesterton calls it "probably the best detective tale in the world". It was published in 1868, later than Poe's short story mysteries "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) (which introduced the famous locked-room paradigm), "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1845). The plot also shows some parallels with The Hermitage (1839), an earlier murder mystery story by the English novelist Sarah Burney: for example, the return of a childhood companion, the sexual symbolism of defloration implied in the crime, and the almost catatonic reactions of the heroine to it. However, The Moonstone introduced a number of the elements that became classic attributes of the twentieth-century detective story in novel form, as opposed to Poe's short story form. These include:
- an English country house robbery
- an "inside job"
- red herrings
- a celebrated, skilled, professional investigator
- a bungling local constabulary
- detective enquiries
- a large number of false suspects
- the "least likely suspect"
- a reconstruction of the crime
- a final twist in the plot.
Franklin Blake, the gifted amateur, is an early example of the gentleman detective. The highly competent Sergeant Cuff, the policeman called in from Scotland Yard (whom Collins based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher who solved the murder committed by Constance Kent), is not a member of the gentry and is unable to break Rachel Verinder's reticence about what Cuff knows is an inside job. The Moonstone has also been described as perhaps the earliest police procedural, due to the portrayal of Cuff. The social difference between Collins's two detectives is shown by their relationships with the Verinder family: Sergeant Cuff befriends Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder's steward (chief servant), whereas Franklin Blake eventually marries her daughter Rachel.
The Moonstone represents Collins's only complete reprisal of the popular "multi-narration" method that he had previously used to great effect in The Woman in White. The sections by Gabriel Betteredge (steward to the Verinder household) and Miss Clack (a poor relative and religious crank) offer both humour and pathos through their contrast with the testimony of other narrators, at the same time constructing and advancing the novel's plot.
One of the features that made The Moonstone a success was the sensationalist depiction of opium addiction. Unbeknownst to his readers, Collins was writing from personal experience. In his later years Collins grew severely addicted to laudanum and as a result suffered from paranoid delusions, the most notable being his conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a doppelganger whom he dubbed "Ghost Wilkie".
The novel was Collins's last great success, coming at the end of an extraordinarily productive period in which four successive novels became bestsellers. After The Moonstone Collins wrote novels containing more overt social commentary that did not achieve the same audience.
Film, radio, and television adaptations
In 1934 the book was made into a critically acclaimed American film, The Moonstone by Monogram Pictures Corporation. Adapted to the screen by Adele S. Buffington, the film was directed by Reginald Barker, and starred David Manners, Charles Irwin and Phyllis Barry.
On 11 March 1945 "The Moonstone" was episode number 67 of the U.S. radio series The Weird Circle. On 15 April 1947 an adaptation of "The Moonstone" was episode #47 of the NBC radio series Favorite Story hosted by Ronald Colman. On 16 November and 23 November 1953 "The Moonstone", starring Peter Lawford, was broadcast in a two-part episode of the U.S. radio drama "Suspense".
In 1959 the BBC adapted the novel as a television serial starring James Hayter. In 1972 the serial was remade, featuring Robin Ellis. This second version was aired in the United States on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.
In 1996 The Moonstone was made for television by the BBC and Carlton Television in partnership with WGBH of Boston, Massachusetts, airing again on Masterpiece Theatre. It starred Greg Wise as Franklin Blake and Keeley Hawes as Rachel Verinder.
In 2011 BBC Radio 4 serialised the story in four hour-long episodes in the Classic Serial slot with Eleanor Bron as Lady Verinder, Paul Rhys as Franklin Blake, Jasmine Hyde as Rachel Verinder and Kenneth Cranham as Sergeant Cuff.
- David, Deirdre The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel p179. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Hall, Sharon K (1979). Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. p.531. University of Michigan
- Lorna J. Clarke: "Introduction", p. xxiv. In: Sarah Burney: The Romance of Private Life. The Hermitage (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008. ISBN 1-85196-873-3).
- Karl, Frederick R (2002). "Introduction". The Moonstone. New York. p. 9. ISBN 0-451-52829-8.
- Wheat, Carolyn (2003) How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery and The Roller Coaster of Suspense. Santa Barbara, PA: Perseverance Press, ISBN 1880284626
- Paul Collins. "The Case of the First Mystery Novelist", in print as "Before Hercule or Sherlock, There Was Ralph", New York Times Book Review, 7 January 2011
- Julian Symons (1972), Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. p. 51: "... there is no doubt that the first detective novel, preceding Collins and Gaboriau, was The Notting Hill Mystery.
- The Moonstone (1934) on IMDb
- Dunning, John. The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print ISBN 0-19-507678-8
- Kirby, Walter (22 November 1953). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 46. Retrieved 8 July 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- The Moonstone (1972) on IMDb.
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