The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins is an example of first detective novel. It was published in instalments in Charles Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round.
The story starts at Rachel Verinder’s eighteenth birthday party. Rachel receives a diamond, the moonstone, as a gift from her uncle. She does not know that precious stone was stolen and that his uncles was a corrupt English army officer who served in India. The diamond has a great religious and three Hindus have devoted their lives to recover the precious stones. During the party Rachel wears the diamond and among the guests there are Franklin Blake – whom she loves – and Godfrey Ablewhite, her cousin who proposes to her. Both of them will be very important in the development of the story. At night, the diamond is stolen and a sad and unlucky period starts for the Verinders. To solve the case that then reveals to be more intricate than it was thought, is Sergeant Cuff, a famous, particular detective with a passion for roses.
The book was inspired by the Indian legends about Gods with cursed precious stones on their statues. The Moonstone was in fact set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath, and later at Benares and it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu.
The book is widely regarded as the precursor of the modern mystery and suspense novels. T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.. in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”.
ORIGINALITY – The elements that will be an example for the following detective story writers are the English country house, the “inside job”, a famous, professional investigator, and the amateur detective, detective enquiries, false suspects, the “least likely suspect”, the reconstruction of the crime and the final twist in the plot.
Collins here uses the “multi-narration” method: the story is told by a series of narratives from some of the main characters.
The contrasting testimonies give the narration humour and pathos while constructing and advancing the novel’s plot.
Another aspect which was quite original for the period is the depiction of opium addiction, a problem Collins knew personally (Collins became addicted to laudanum and then suffered from paranoid delusions; he said he was accompanied by a doppelganger he dubbed “Ghost Wilkie”).
PLOT Rachel Verinder, on her eiteenth birthday inherits a precious diamond, gift from her uncle, a corrupt English army officer who served in India. The diamond has also a great religious value and three Hindu priests have dedicated their lives to recovering it. Rachel’s eighteenth birthday is celebrated with a large party during which she wears and shows the Moonstone on her dress. Among the guest there is her cousin Franklin Blake. At night, the diamond is stolen from Rachel’s bedroom, the burglar is followed by a period in which sad and unlucky events happens. Sergeant Cuff, a famous detective with a penchant for roses, will have to unveil the truth.
SOURCES – The book is widely regarded as the precursor of the modern mystery and suspense novels. T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels.. in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe”
Probably the literary sources which influenced the writing of the novel were Sarah Burney’s The Hermitage (1839) which deals with the return of a childhood companion, the sexual symbolism of defloration and the heroine’s reactions to it and Notting Hill Mystery (1862-63) The author remained anonymous until 2011, when American investigator Paul Collins identified it in Charles Felix, pseudonym of charles Warren Adams.
Historical sources – The Prologue emphasizes the historical significance of the story: the action takes place in the years 1848-49, at the time of the second Anglo-Sikh War in India, which established British control over that country with great certainty through annexation of the vast areas of the Punjab. An important English victory at Seringapatam in what was the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1789-99) marked the beginning of “the empire” of the East India Company: it represented the establishment of England as the major power on the sub-continent, and confirmed the expansion and exploitation as a company practice.
The story of the Jewel: The great diamond refers to two very famous stones the Russian “Orloff” (the diamond in the Russian Imperial Sceptre) and the “Koh-i-Noor” (the Persian “mountain of light”), both stolen by Europeans.
The historical background which supplies elements for the story is a reference to the gift Maharajah Duleep Singh gave to Queen Victoria. He was the first Sikh settler established by the United Kingdom, then dethroned after 6 years with the annexion of the country to the British crown. The exiled Sikh became a friend of Queen Victoria, and gave her the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is the centrepiece of the Queen Mother’s state crown.