Serious mystery readers may already know that The Moonstone is considered “the first and greatest of English detective novels.” Those are the words of T. S. Eliot, poet, playwright, literary critic and winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read The Moonstone, which was first published in 1868, for the Whodunits mystery book club at the library where I work.
Wow. It’s a whopping, 482 pages of dense type, with footnotes, so I had to go hard to get it read by my deadline, but it was totally worth it!
The story begins in India, with the Storming of the Seringapatam by an English Imperialist army, during which a valuable gem is stolen from a religious icon. John Herncastle brings the famous Yellow Diamond back to England and, when he dies, it goes to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her eighteenth birthday. It’s an act of revenge, though, because the gem is rumored to be cursed and Herncastle’s family hates him. And a mysterious trio of Indians has been lurking in the shadows ever since Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, brought the Diamond, aka The Moonstone, to the family’s home in Yorkshire.
Rachel wears the Diamond for her birthday party and by morning it’s missing. The local police manage to offend the servants and soon, the famous Sergeant Cuff is called from London. He discovers an important clue, and the investigation takes off. Rumors from London suggest the gem been pawned and secured in a bank vault. If true, how did it get from Yorkshire to London?
The narrative is from many points of view, beginning with Lady Verinda’s butler, Gabriel Betteredge. He quickly becomes Cuff’s sidekick as they try to unravel the events that led to the lost Diamond. Other narrators include a poor relation, Miss Clack, who is eager to share her carpetbag full of religious pamphlets and Franklin, who was also Rachel’s love interest before the gem went missing, and is now under suspicion. Many additional characters contribute clues, but they don’t always lead in the right direction: Rosanna Spearman is a plain housemaid (and former thief) with a deformed shoulder, and she knows something. Philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite is another love interest and “Limping Lucy” Yolland holds a letter that may explain a lot.
The mystery is set in both the coastal region of Yorkshire, where a scary tract of quicksand may have swallowed up some answers, and in London, where shady lender Septimus Luker has an office and family lawyer Matthew Bruff wields an imposing legal influence.
Halfway through the book and you wonder if the mystery will ever be solved. It will, but there’s a lot to discover, through briefly introduced characters in the beginning, and new characters, all leading towards a twisted and spectacular finish.
While not an easy read, I totally recommend The Moonstone as an example of how it’s done. I’m only giving it 4.5 stars, however, because of its difficulty.
And here’s something interesting: the book was originally published in serialized format by Collins’s good friend, Charles Dickens!
Have you read The Moonstone? What did you think?
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