The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

Many thanks to Kim for giving me this copy of The Moonstone which I’d wanted to read ever since she’d given me The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (see my blog from December 2008), about the Road House Murder, a real crime that captivated Victorian England. Elements of that crime and the detective who investigated it show up here, transmuted into a different story altogether.

Authors are often asked where they get their ideas for stories and whether events and/or characters come from the author’s life. The answer is, of course, that ideas come from everywhere: chance encounters, overheard conversations, current events, etc. And most authors select bits and pieces from people they’ve encountered or heard of, turn the fragments this was and that, and recombine them with a startling glue of their own to create entirely original characters. They then put these characters into unusual situations or up against different people to create a combustion of events that grow naturally out of the conflicting elements.

I recently read Collins’s Woman in White (see my blog from June 2007) which I recommended as a masterpiece of suspense. Here as well, Collins demonstrates his skill at maintaining the suspense, with just enough ebb and flow to keep it interesting. At the same time, he gives us characters who ring true even when we are convinced they are lying, and devises twists and turns of the story to keep us guessing.

In this book, published in 1868, the first and some say still the best detective story, Collins starts with a scene worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, an account of the storming of Indian town of Seringapatam by the English army, full of riot and confusion, death and plunder. The marauding army is obsessed by the tales of the Moonstone, a fabulous jewel that carries a curse on whoever steals it, said to be somewhere within the town. Exploiting the vogue for Orientalism sweeping England, Collins creates a tangle out of a country house weekend, a returning prodigal son, family tensions, and the long wake of repercussions from a single act of treachery and heartlessness.

And it’s a love story too.

How he pulls all this together is simply amazing. The book consists of a series of narratives contributed by various participants, each with a strong, unique voice, from Mr. Candy, the local doctor, and his mysterious assistant, Ezra Jennings, to Franklin Blake, the prodigal himself, to Betteredge, the long-time servant of the Verinder family, who consults Robinson Crusoe for guidance.

It’s an amazing tale, and I won’t spoil it for anyone by divulging any details. I’ll just recommend the book as one of the best I’ve read this year.

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