About a month ago now, for part of my third year pre-prep, I read The Moonstone, by Wilke Collins. This is the original detective story…containing not as many clichés as you would think. In fact, it’s very well written. It may shock you, and this isn’t really a spoiler, but unlike most detective novels it is not a death being investigated, but a theft. This at first didn’t seem such a thrilling reading prospect, but I actually became very heavily absorbed in this book- it came everywhere with me until I’d finished it.
The narrative follows a cursed Indian diamond, part of a shrine to a Hindu moon god, stolen when members of the British army lay siege to said Indian shrine. John Herncastle kills the three Brahmins (priests sworn to protect the diamond) and claims it as his own, returning to England with it.
The story the novel tells takes place several years after the above, when upon his death John Herncastle leaves his diamond to the daughter (Rachel Vernier) of his estranged sister (Julia Vernier), whom pretty much disowned him. Turns out that the diamond is rumoured to be cursed, throwing suspicion as to why he would want to leave it to his niece- especially as it was on the proviso that her mother is still alive. Has he left it to her as proof that he forgave Julia for disowning him, thus simultaneously guilt-tripping her and making amends? Or, is it because he hopes that the curse of the diamond will serve as his revenge on his sister and niece?
The narrative begins with one fairly long main section, following the brief story of how the Indian diamond was first stolen by Colonel Herncastle. I took this as a pretty much accurate narrative- to begin with. The tale then divides into several smaller narratives in order to get details that a single character could never know. When the moonstone goes missing, although one eminent detective attempts to trace it, this narrative takes up only a small portion of the book. Ultimately, everyone- even minor character’s- recollections and opinions are needed to solve the mystery.
Originally the novel was published in a serialised form, and so the changes in narrator would have marked out a new episode. With the shifting perspectives it took me a record amount of time to figure out who my bet was on as the thief. My initial suspect turned out to be completely wrong- but my second guess was bang on.
So many smaller tales woven together that I felt as if the story ended far from where it began (it spans about one year), and some details I felt were very important (such as the maid Rosanna Spearman’s background, who was once a thief) turned out to be less important than I first assumed. In fact, I thought up many weird and wonderful plot lines that weren’t fulfilled- this novel gets your own inner detective working, and the creative side of your brain racing.
Eventually the narrative works itself around in a complete circle, with the solution being scarily close to the beginning: it could have been solved so easily if not for circumstance. The ending was extremely refreshing. If the novel had ended one chapter earlier I would have been sadly disappointed, but the final narrative brings everything together, just neatly enough.
Of course, I had my favourite characters: Franklin Blake, Sergent Cuff, Mr Bruff, Mr Murthwaite, and Ezra Jennings. I also had my least favourite characters: Rachel Vernier, Miss Clack- who did provide some comic relief, granted- and Godfrey Ablewhite. Gabriel Betteredge, a character more or less consistently present, was mildly irritating at times, but was a likeable character overall. One of the few bones I had to pick with this novel is how little we hear from the main female characters. Though I understand that this is primarily to ensure too much isn’t given away, the active characters in the novel are male. The only female character who sufficiently develops- before this is cut short- is Rosanna Spearman.
I felt this would be a dry novel, hard to read. But it was surprisingly enjoyable, if a little hard to locate yourself within the time frame due to the numerous switches in narrative. I think that if you’re into detective fiction you’ll get a great deal of enjoyment out of this…