Reading Challenge Redux — The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins Back in January I committed myself to a reading challenge for 2013, something I’d previously done back in 2011 to decent results. This year’s challenge? To read a second book by 12 authors whom I’d previously read a book by. A quick bit of math will reveal that the idea behind the year-long challenge is to read one book from the list each month: this is my first follow up post for the year, so clearly I’m bit behind. I’m not to be discouraged however, and am pressing on with my reading. Hopefully these posts will be more frequent as the year goes on, but in the meantime, here’s some thoughts on my first challenge book of the year, The Moonstone (M) by Wilkie Collins.
Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins Some background: Wilkie Collins was a 19th century English writer who wrote essays and short fiction as well as several novels that fell into the category of sensation novels and which can be seen as a precursor to modern day thriller and detective stories. Collins was a contemporary — and good friend — of Charles Dickens, and like Dickens, his novels were largely serialized — published in instalments in magazines — prior to being released as a full book. This gave him a large audience and he was a prolific and popular author in his time. Several books are now considered classics, including The Woman in White (M) (the book of Collins’ that I first read as part of a university course) and The Moonstone.
The Moonstone follows the case of a missing diamond, which was bequeathed to a young woman named Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday. The large diamond has a checkered history, having been removed without permission from a Hindu shrine by a relation of Rachel’s who was serving in the army in India. After having the diamond in her possession for a single evening, it is mysteriously stolen from the cabinet outside of her bedroom. The novel is told in epistolary style (in letters or documents) through case reports written by a number of the story’s characters that detail the events as they saw them.  The style is enjoyable, giving you different voices as the story progresses, and leaving the reader, like the characters in the story, in the dark about what happened until the big reveal at the end.
Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins I liked the Moonstone: the book is a fun, early example (some say the first) of a detective novel. But I have to admit, that as someone who loved The Woman in White, I was a bit disappointed with this book. I found that I wasn’t as interested in the plot of this book: The Woman in White focuses on the plight of a young woman who is being mistreated by scheming relatives, while the Moonstone is mostly just about a bunch of rich people feeling bad that their big diamond (which was acquired through dubious means) has been stolen from them. My recollection of The Woman in White is that it has some social commentary built into the drama, and the Moonstone feels less so.
Although both books use the epistolary style to tell their narrative, I also found the narrators in The Moonstone less compelling — and at least one of them was a little bit annoying. As you might expect in a novel that was written as a serial, there are a number of cliff-hanger chapter endings and sudden twists-of-fate: reading it cover to cover as a novel, there are a few plot twists that feel a little too convenient, and despite the fact that it was an innovator at the time, for a modern reader, it felt a bit clichéd.
Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins That said, I’m glad I read the Moonstone. Tonally it is very similar to the Woman in White, and the tone is one of the things about the first book that I really enjoyed. If you haven’t read The Woman in White, I’d suggest starting there if you’re interested in exploring this era of writing, and don’t be fooled into thinking that because of its age it will be boring — my recollection is that it’s a real page turner. If you’re already a fan of Collins and The Moonstone isn’t one you’ve read, it’s still worth a visit. Although I didn’t get pulled in by the mystery, clearly many readers have: and on top of that, there is some real humour in the pages, and the descriptions of Victorian English life make it worth the read regardless. I guess, I can’t ignore the fact that it’s probably been more than ten years since I last read The Woman in White, it might have an unfair glow in my memory: but it’s one that has stuck with me for a long time, and I’m not sure The Moonstone will be the same.
If you’re interested in Victorian detective fiction you might also enjoy:

Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins Other books by Wilkie Collins (M). In addition to the Moonstone and The Woman in White, many of Collins’ other books are still available in print and the library collection includes several of these. If you’re already a Collins fan, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comparisons in the comments below.
Lady Audley’s Secret (M) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Another Victorian sensation novel that was wildly popular in its time and is now considered a classic. “Lady Audley, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, rises from governess to become the selfish and shamelessly acquisitive wife of an aristocrat.”
Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins The Dead Witness : a connoisseur’s collection of Victorian detective stories (M) edited by Michael Sims. This collection includes a stories from Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, as well as a number of lesser known authors of the era.
Reading Challenge Redux -- The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins The Notting Hill Mystery (M) by Charles Warren Adams (written under the pseudonym Charles Felix). Another originally serialized novel that tries to vie for the title of first detective novel. “The story is told by insurance investigator Ralph Henderson, who is building a case against the sinister Baron R suspected of murdering his wife in order to obtain significant life insurance payments. Henderson descends into a maze of intrigue including a diabolical mesmerist, kidnapping by gypsies, slow-poisoners, a rich uncle’s will and three murders.”


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