Being somewhat new to the mystery genre, I wanted to go back to the beginning and read some of the first mysteries – an experience which I found both rewarding and enjoyable.
Although these early novels can be at times challenging, Wilkie Collins’ books in particular feature the fast pace and excitement that we now expect from modern mysteries.
The Woman in White begins when the main character, Walter Hartright, meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white on a lonely country road. This chance encounter fuels Hartright’s curiosity about the woman, and he unknowingly stumbles upon a scandalous secret that has long been covered up – a secret that involves not only Laura Fairlie, the woman Hartright loves, but also her fiancee Sir Percival Glyde and his cunning companion Count Fosco. Collins constructs a compelling mystery with attention to social issues of the time, and his characters are well-constructed, each with their own histories and personalities. Originally published in 1859-1860 by Charles Dickens, this novel is a timeless classic which continues to thrill readers even 155 years later.
On her eighteenth birthday Rachel Verinder inherits a large Indian diamond called the Moonstone, which besides being extremely valuable, carries a great religious significance to the temple from which it was stolen years before. The diamond is a legacy from her estranged uncle, who was a corrupt British army officer who had served in India. At Rachel’s birthday party, she wears the diamond, which is admired by everyone – including a mysterious band of Indian jugglers who turned up in the village. When the diamond is stolen later that night, suspicion falls not only on the jugglers, but also upon a housemaid named Rosanna Spearman and on Rachel herself. The ensuing attempts to recover the diamond and reveal the culprit are told through narratives by the main characters.
Lady Audley’s Secret, falls into the genre of a sensation novel, which was the Victorian precursor to the mystery genre. Sensation novels are a combination of criminal investigation and gothic or romantic styles. Braddon’s book, playing on Victorian fears of bigamy, tells the story of Lady Audley, who was a governess who climbed to a position of power by marrying a wealthy man. When a young man named George Talboys becomes interested in uncovering her past, the ambitious and ruthless Lady Audley will do anything to maintain her position.
William Godwin – Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (M)
William Godwin is most well known for his novel Caleb Williams, which is considered to be one of the first psychological thrillers ever written. When Caleb Williams discovers that his new employer, a seemingly mild mannered man named Ferdinando Falkland, is implicated in a mysterious murder he becomes suspicious about Falkland, and fears for his own life. When finally Williams flees the estate, Falkland pursues him in a deadly chase. In a style reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (who was in fact his daughter), Godwin’s dark tale of madness and fear draws the reader in.
Although I have not yet finished reading The Moonstone, The Woman in White is my favourite of the group because of its fast pace and complex characters