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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Review: The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins (England)

Title: The Moonstone
Author: Wilkie Collins
Publication: 2006/Project Gutenberg
Original Publication: 1868/Tinsley Brothers, UK
ISBN #: not available
Number of pages:  528
Read in e-book format
Also available in paper format
Discovered many years ago and on the To Be Read list ever since

The action begins with the Storming of Seringapatam, a battle in southern India between the British East India company and the Kingdom of Mysore in 1799. The unnamed narrator is horrified to see his cousin John Herncastle murdering three Indians and he suspects he has stolen the Moonstone, a magnificent yellow diamond, set in the forehead of the Indian god of the moon.

The stone has been around for centuries. After one attempted theft, Vishnu the Preserver appeared to three Brahmins in a dream, cursed anyone who stole it and instructed them to guard it forever. They were successful until the eighteenth century when the Mogul Emperor stole it during a war. The stone then passed through many hands until Herncastle got it, always with three Brahmins hovering in the background, waiting for an opportunity to get it back.

When Herncastle died after a life on the run, the instructions in his will were for his nephew Franklin Blake to give the stone to his niece (Blake’s cousin) Rachel Verinder on her birthday. Three Indian conjurers show up at the English estate around the same time. Blake gives her the stone at her eighteenth birthday party then during the night, it mysteriously vanishes. Since the Indians are still in the area, it is apparent they do not have it but who does? Rachel will not discuss the matter with her family or Sergeant Cuff, the police detective hired by her family to find the thief and the stone.

From here, the mystery is continued through the sequential narratives of several intriguing characters. Gabriel Betteredge, the rather misogynistic house steward to Lady Verinder (Rachel’s mother and Herncastle’s sister) is guided through life by passages from "Robinson Crusoe". He narrates a large part of the story. His narrative is followed by that of Drusilla Clack, Lady Verinder’s god-fearing spinster niece, who pushes her religious tracts on people at every opportunity. The remaining narratives are by family lawyer Mathew Bruff, Franklin Blake himself, Ezra Jennings doctor’s assistant, Mr. Candy the doctor, Sergeant Cliff’s man, a ship’s captain and finally Mr. Murthwaite, a character who keeps popping out throughout the story.

As a mystery buff, I have wanted to read this book for years. It is considered the first English language mystery novel (as opposed to Edgar Allan Poe’s earlier mystery short stories). It was originally serialized in Charles Dickens’ magazine “All the Year Round”.  I am glad I read it, especially since it is the first example of many elements of the modern detective story: bungling local cop, red herrings, false suspects, crime reconstruction and a plot twist, to name a few. But it is a long long book (much like this review). I very much agreed with Gabriel Betteredge at the end of Chapter XXII when he said “if you are as tired of reading this narrative as I am of writing it…” At that point, I was only 35% of the way through the book! Due to the book’s historical significance, it is worth reading and the plot is quite good. I may read Collins’ other best seller “The Woman in White”….but not for awhile.

Have you read any mysteries from the late 1800s or early 1900s? Did they stand the test of time?


  1. I've been thinking of reading this one too, and I think I may try audio too-- anything to make riding the exercise bike more entertaining.

  2. Or it may put you to sleep and you'll fall off the bike! I'll be interested in how the audio version is. That's a format I need to revisit; didn't like my first experience with it.

  3. I don't listen to audio books often because my mind drifts, but if I find a good reader I'm hooked.

  4. I read the Woman in White as a teenager and found it quite gripping. I've been meaning to read The Moonstone ever since, but your review may be the final push in the right direction. I can imagine it must be long, with lots of complicated description, and shifting POV which can be quite disconcerting to a modern reader. Still, it's interesting to see how the genre has changed over the years.

    1. I had "Woman in White" on my TBR list but had taken it off. Based on your "quite gripping" comment, I think I'll put it back on.