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The Moonstone by Wilkie CollinsT S Eliot called The Moonstone “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s hard not to agree. The Moonstone, an enormous diamond of religious significance, is vilely plundered by a British soldier during the taking of Seringapatam in 1799. The Moonstone is brought back to England and, eventually, given to the prim, beautiful and willful heiress, Rachel Verinder, on her birthday in 1848. And it goes missing the very same night. Rachel’s family and friends are keen to recover the lost stone and to identify the thief and call upon the services of Sergeant Cuff, the most celebrated and successful detective that Scotland Yard can offer. Yet Rachel is strangely reluctant to assist in the investigation, and the professional sleuth is not the only one searching for the stone and for answers. Three juggling Indians accompanied by a clairvoyant young boy, a ruthless London money lender and an amiable philanthropist all seem to have their own interest in recovering the stone while others, including Rachel and a reformed thief turned servant girl, seem at least as anxious to conceal certain facts surrounding its disappearance. The stage is thus set for a gripping detective story full of twists and turns and unexpected developments, all centred on the Verinder’s country house in Yorkshire.

The Moonstone by Wilkie CollinsWritten in a semi- epistolary style, with several of the major characters telling the parts of the story with which they were most concerned from their own perspective, Collins’ novel has strong gothic overtones and much in common with the `big-house’ novels written earlier in the century, serving as a bridge with the welter of English detective fiction which was to follow. It is long, but you hardly notice as Collins whisks his story from India to Yorkshire, to London, to Brighton and back to Yorkshire and the mystery deepens. Elegant prose reminiscent of yet lighter than Dickens’ encapsulates an enchanting mystery with magical, even fantastical overtones, and presents a series of warm, engaging, if somewhat stereotypical characters: who can forgot the admirable Gabriel Betteredge, with his mystic faith in the powers of Robinson Crusoe to provide answers to daily difficulties, or the misunderstood Erza Jennings, with his face so much older than his body and his two-tone hair?

A sheer delight to read and, like so much detective fiction, hugely entertaining, The Moonstone does not demand to be taken seriously, yet for the careful reader, it offers deeper strains of tension over class, over Empire, and over religious differences and good and evil, which one might more readily associate with the post-war literature of a cosmopolitan diaspora.

Read several times over the years; reviewed in 2007

© Jessica Mulley