Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Modern crime fiction owes much to those who originated the genre; a lot of the character types, plot devices and other elements used in much crime fiction can be traced to those founders. One of them is Wilkie Collins. So it only seems appropriate to spotlight a Wilkie Collins novel for this feature. Today, let’s take a closer look at The Moonstone, which many people feel is one of the first crime fiction novels.
The novel begins with the storming of the Palace of Seringaptam in India in 1799. During that siege, Colonel John Herncastle’s cousin witnesses him commit what seems to be murder, along with the theft of a valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone. From that moment, his cousin refuses to have anything to do with Herncastle. Much later, Herncastle bequeaths the Moonstone to his niece Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Franklin Blake, whose father was named executor of Herncastle’s will, has been dispatched to the Verinder residence with the diamond to carry out the terms of the will.
This bequest, though, isn’t all that it seems. Herncastle and his sister Lady Julia Verinder have not been on good terms, and one belief is that the Moonstone is a curse on the Verinder family for not welcoming Sir John. Certainly there are stories that the diamond curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and even if the curse isn’t real, it seems that several groups of people have been after the diamond. One of them is a group of three people from India who seem to be charged with getting the diamond back and returning it to its home. Another is a group of shady people from London who’d like nothing better than to have the stone.
Trouble soon befalls the Verinder family. The diamond is duly given to Rachel Verinder on her birthday, but that night, instead of locking it away safely, Rachel determines to keep it in her room. The next morning, it’s gone. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. The diamond itself is traced to London, and seems to have been pledged to a money-lender. Now, the task is to find out who stole the diamond, who pledged it to the London moneylenders, and where the diamond is now. Sergeant Richard Cuff is put in charge of the investigation, and slowly, over the course of two years, he solves the mystery.
It’s not just Sergeant Cuff who does the detection work in this story, though, and that’s one of the very important elements in this story – point of view. We learn about the fate of the diamond through the eyes of more than one. In fact, the novel is told through several points of view, including the point of view of Gabriel Betteredge, head of the household staff at the Verinder residence; Franklin Blake; Drusilla Clack (a cousin of Rachel Verinder’s); Sergeant Cuff; and the family attorney, Matthew Bruff. Through each of these narratives, we learn what happened to the diamond, and we gradually learned how it came to be stolen and by whom, and what’s happened to it. These multiple points of view give the reader a fascinating perspective on the events in the story and solid sense of each storyteller’s personality. Each narrative is clearly identified, too, so that we can easily see who’s telling the story at any given time.
Another element that runs through this novel is the social structure of the time. There are very clear class-based differences among the characters in the novel, and those differences are reflected in all sorts of subtle and more obvious ways. To take just one example, Sergeant Cuff believes that a missing article of clothing may hold the key to the missing Moonstone. So he asks that everyone’s possessions be searched. At first, Lady Verinder objects, saying that she doesn’t want to cast aspersions on her staff, who have already been under suspicion for the theft. Cuff says,
“‘If I can tell them I am going to examine the wardrobes of EVERYBODY – from her ladyship downwards – who slept on Wednesday night. It’s a mere formality,’ he added with a side look at my [Betteredge’s] mistress; ‘but the servants will accept it as even dealing between them and their betters; and instead of impeding the investigation, they will make it a point of honour of assisting it.’”
It’s interesting, too, how all of the characters in this novel accept the social status quo.
There’s also a strong element of sexism that runs through this novel. There are many assumptions made about women throughout this novel, most especially by Gabriel Betteredge. Here's just one example of the things he says and thinks:
“But it is a maxim of mine that men (being superior creatures) are bound to improve women – if they can….The oftener you make them rummage their own minds for a reason, the more manageable you will find them in all relations of life. It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them.”
While Betteredge is the most outspoken in his views of women, all of the other characters seem to accept the social status of women in this novel as natural. Today’s readers wouldn’t likely tolerate that sort of blatant dismissal of women; however, the book does provide a fascinating look at relations between the genders at the time it was written.
We see a solid element of ethnocentrism in this novel, too. It’s true that John Herncastle is regarded as a “blackguard” by his peers and relatives. His cousin won’t even speak to him because he knows that Herncastle has killed an Indian and stolen the diamond. However, the Indian characters in the novel are certainly not seen as equals. They’re viewed as dangerous threats, or as superstitious. Even Mr. Murthwaite, a “celebrated Indian traveler,” who has more respect for the Indians he meets than the other characters do, seems to see them more as objects of curiosity than as real people, even though he describes them as “a wonderful people.” You could argue that a complacent sense of the superiority of Whites runs through the story, although it’s not always obvious.
Finally, there’s the element of humour. We see that humour reflected in several places in the story; I’ll just mention one. One of the characters, Drusilla Clack, is an avowed Christian who’s determined to “save” as many people as she can, including her aunt Lady Julia Verinder and her cousin Rachel Verinder. She contrives to leave several religious tracts and books in strategic places in the London house where the Verinders stay after the theft of the diamond. Lady Verinder sends all of the religious literature back to Miss Clack. Here is Drusilla Clack’s reaction:
“Once self-supported by conscience, once embarked on a career of manifest usefulness, the true Christian never yields. Neither public nor private influences produce the slightest effect on us, when we have once got our mission. Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission: we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration which moves the world outside us. We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody's eyes, we hear with nobody's ears, we feel with nobody's hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And how is it earned? Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry! We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people who are always right.”
She then decides that if the Verinders won’t read the religious books and pamphlets, they may read letters. So she sends all sorts of letters with religious messages in them. Those letters remain unopened. Drusilla Clack’s determination to sway her relations is welcome comic relief, even as it speaks to the views of religion at the time.
Along with the elements I’ve already mentioned, there are also lots of the elements that would later become staples of the crime fiction novel. There’s the wrongly-suspected “innocent” characters who later are cleared. There’s the “manor house” setting. There’s the stalwart Sergeant who’s trying to solve the crime. There’s romance, too. All of these elements have been refined by other authors, but we can see their seeds in this novel. But what’s your view? Have you read The Moonstone? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 6 December/Tuesday 7 December – Tied Up in Tinsel – Ngaio Marsh
Monday 13 December/Tuesday 14 December – Mind’s Eye – Håkan Nesser
Monday 20 December/Tuesday 21 December – The Grave Tattoo – Val McDermid