Mystery Monday: Wilkie Collins
Last month I wrote a blog post about W. Somerset Maugham and his book Ashenden, or The British Agent which was touted as the first spy novel written by someone who served in that capacity. A follower pointed out that Wilkie Collins and his book The Moonstone was the first detective novel since it was published in 1868. I had never heard of Collins, and many of you may not have either, so without further ado, here’s a bit about the man and his novel…
Williams Wilkie Collins, named for his father, painter William Collins, and godfather, Sir David Wilkie, was born in the Marylebone district of London on January 8, 1824. He and his family lived in Italy and France for two years, then he returned to England to attend boarding school. After leaving school in 1841, he worked for a tea merchant, but disliked the job immensely. He began to write stories and in 1850, after his father died, he published his first, The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. It received good reviews, so he continued to write, ultimately publishing thirty books, over one hundred articles, a dozen plays, and numerous short stories.
By all reports, Collins lived against the social mores of the time. Rather than adhere to the strict Victorian code, he ate and drank to excess, wore flamboyant clothing, and formed long-term relationships with two women he didn’t marry, one of whom bore him three children. He also suffered from ill-health and took opium as a result, which he ultimately became addicted to.
The Moonstone was not well-received by critics or Collins’s mentor and friend, Charles Dickens, but according to T.S. Eliot, “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels…in a genre invented by Collins, not by Poe.” Dorothy Sayers commented that it was “probably the very finest detective novel ever written.”
Containing many thriller elements, the plot of The Moonstone revolves around the theft of a large diamond inherited by a young woman on her eighteenth birthday. Incorporating some of the elements of the origins of the Hope Diamond, the story is told in a series of narratives (similar to Maugham’s Ashenden. The complex plot involves many twists and turns and includes many of the fundamentals now part of many mysteries: red herrings, a celebrated, skilled investigator, a bumbling local police force, lots of false suspects, and the “least likely suspect.”
Over the years, The Moonstone has found its way into radio, film, and television adaptations, the most recent one in 2016 by the BBC. Check your public library, they are sure to have a copy of this classic.