I’ve not read much in the way of  ‘detective fiction’ in my life, though in the last two or three years I have made a few forays in that direction. First, I was bought one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels (The Nine Tailors), which I thoroughly enjoyed, then not long after that, I read John Buchan’s classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was also good. So, when I read that T. S. Eliot had described Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as, ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels’ I thought I had better give the book a try.

And I’m glad I did; the novel is a real treat (in a comfortingly English country-house crime-mystery sort of way!)

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The basic plot premise is that one Colonel Herncastle acquired the amazing diamond of the title under highly dubious circumstances during during the Siege of Seringapatam and then brought it back from India to England. Upon his death, the Colonel leaves the jewel to his young niece, Rachel Verinder, who is presented with it on her eighteenth birthday. However, that very night the moonstone is stolen – and the rest of the novel is taken up with the investigation into exactly what happened and who was responsible.

There is a plentiful ensemble of suspects: three Indian jugglers who, it is rumoured, have sworn to return the jewel to the Hindu temple from where it was taken; an unusual maidservant, who has a history of theft;  Rachel herself, who shortly after the theft begins to behave quite erratically; and a gentleman friend and guest, Franklin Blake.  After the ineffectual efforts of the local bumbling police, the renowned detective Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate. Sergeant Cuff is a great character and one that has evidently shaped many fictional detectives since; he is clearly very intelligent, but also quite remote; he always has much more going on in his head than he will let on to the other characters; and he has a few eccentric habits (in this case, an intense love of roses and a tendency to whistle to himself when he is thinking things over).

Every human institution (Justice included) will stretch a little, if only you pull it in the right way.

The novel contains many features which have become staples in the English detective genre: an English country house setting, a famed detective, a large number of possible suspects, many red herrings and plot twists, a reconstruction of the crime and a final denouement which reveals the least likely of characters as the culprit.

As well as all of the features mentioned already, the novel is also notable in that the narrative is told by several different characters. I particularly enjoyed the accounts from loyal family servant, Gabriel Betteredge, who is a brilliant, quirky, memorable character, with a penchant for turning to Robinson Crusoe not only as a source of comfort but also as a kind of guide to life. All very entertaining!

I eagerly look forward to getting hold of a copy of Wilkie Collins’ other much celebrated novel, The Woman in White.