When The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins first appeared in 1868, it was printed in weekly installments in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round. Each week, readers thronged the streets in front of the magazine office, eager for the next part. No book, except Collins’s The Woman in White, published 8 years earlier, had ever received such a reception. Many years later, the poet T.S. Eliot would refer to The Moonstone as “the first, the longest, and the best of the modern English detective novels.”
The Moonstone is a diamond – not the semi-precious stone we call “moonstone” today – stolen from a statue of the moon god in India and later inherited by the young Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday. It disappears the same night, and the three Hindu men reportedly seen nearby are immediately suspected. But of course things are not so simple as they first appear, and it is well over a year before the diamond is recovered and the mystery of its theft is solved. In the interim, many lives have been disrupted and several characters are dead.
The story is told in a series of narratives by some of the characters, making them much like witnesses at a trial. In this book, Collins originated many of the conventions of the mystery genre: a crime at an English country home, a small group of suspects present when the crime occurs, a bumbling local policeman, and investigation by both a talented amateur detective and the celebrated detective from Scotland Yard.
Life moved at a different pace in the 19th century, and books from the mid-1800s reflect that. Reading The Moonstone takes some patience in 2010, but it’s well worth it. The first-time reader will be intrigued by the mystery of the gem’s disappearance, while the re-reader can savor the gentle humor of some of the narratives and the biting satire of some of the others.