Suspicious Minds

The Moonstone BY Wilkie Collins. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Paperback, 316 pages. $18.

The cover of The Moonstone

With The Moonstone (1868), Wilkie Collins is credited with writing the first detective novel—a genre that runs on secrets and the uncovering of them. Initially serialized in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and released to enormous success, The Moonstone has it all: stolen jewelry, purloined letters, dirty linen, death by quicksand. Women have fainting fits as the virtues of opium are lauded. Suspicious details and red herrings abound. The stuff of domestic trifles is blown up and meticulously inspected—often literally under the lens of a magnifying glass. Dorothy L. Sayers called it “probably the finest detective story ever written.” T. S. Eliot agreed.

As with so many good mysteries, The Moonstone involves a family secret, which is passed down in the form of a letter. “I address these lines—written in India—to my relatives in England,” goes its opening sentence, written by a cousin who accuses Colonel John Herncastle of stealing a precious diamond during the 1799 “storming of Seringapatam.” Though it doesn’t stay private for long, this document, “extracted from a family paper,” is meant “for the information of the family only.” Herncastle leaves the incriminating stolen diamond to family as well: specifically his niece, Rachel Verinder, from whom it is again stolen on the night of her eighteenth-birthday party. Such a transgression finally leaves the family “no alternative but to send for the police”—a decision that spurs a series of investigations, false leads, and unsuspected culprits.

Illustration from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, 1868.
Illustration from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, 1868.

Like Collins’s earlier The Woman in White, The Moonstone employs a range of sensational plot twists and is narrated by an array of competing voices that variously draw on the reader’s sympathies and skepticism. But where The Woman in White relied on the investigative chops of an art teacher to unravel its mystery, The Moonstone introduces, for the first time in the British novel, the figure of the police investigator: Sergeant Cuff, the character who would set the standard for the new genre of the detective story. Archetypally whimsical and dandyish, Cuff sports a white cravat and a fondness for roses. “One of these days (please God) I shall retire from catching thieves,” he says early on, “and try my hand at growing roses.” Arriving on the scene of the crime, Cuff proceeds to meticulously reconstruct the diamond robbery. His search involves—what else—a close examination of everybody’s closets, “from her ladyship downwards.” No detail is too small to attract his attention, no aspect of domestic life too insignifi cant. Under the impersonal gaze of the detective, no one is beyond suspicion. At one point, Cuff even suspects Rachel of stealing the diamond—from herself. (She didn’t, but what a plot twist that would have been.)

In The Novel and the Police, D. A. Miller famously argued that nineteenth-century detective fiction arose in response to new forms of social surveillance that emerged during the Victorian period. The detective’s access to intimate secrets enacts a temporary collapse of public and private spheres; the triumphant solving of the crime attempts to restore order and reassert the sanctity of middle-class domestic life. In The Moonstone, Cuff’s police infiltration of the Verinder family home—an infiltration that the novel itself acts out by intercepting the family’s notes, letters, and diary entries and presenting them for the eyes of the reader—dramatizes broader anxieties about the rise of state control at a moment of rapid industrialization and urbanization.

One thing that sets The Moonstone apart from the genre it inaugurated is that the detective fails to solve the case. Despite his access to the family’s secrets, Cuff eventually gives up and leaves unsatisfied; it falls to one of Collins’s amateurs, the adventurer Franklin Blake, to pick up the trail and find the stolen diamond. Another way the book differs from its successors is in its attention to England’s colonial relationship to India. Behind the domestic troubles—the everyday secrets—that concern its British characters is the frame narrative of the villainous Colonel Herncastle, who steals the moonstone from a Hindu temple. Writing a decade after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Collins presents the British theft of Indian property as an act of imperial violence that must be repaired if the novel is to end happily. The Moonstone’s many domestic crimes are echoes of a larger corruption abroad.

If The Moonstone is, as Eliot claimed, both the first and the finest detective novel, what does it mean that the origins of this paradigmatically British genre lie in the story of stolen Indian property? Even though the novel ends with the diamond’s final restoration “in the forehead of the deity”—the statue from which Herncastle had taken it—the legacy of the initial theft persists. As the final lines wonder, “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?” Maybe the real secret of The Moonstone is hidden in plain sight: The detective fiction we associate with the Victorian era’s anxieties about domestic privacy is inextricably entwined with the larger realities of an increasingly globalized world.

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in Oakland.