A Beach Trip to the Shivering Sands: Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone”

Published 150 years ago on July 16, 1868, in three volumes by Tinsley Brothers of London, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone has been called, by T.S. Eliot no less, “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels.” But is it, in fact, the best? While I could argue for the greater merits of, say, Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles or Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I wouldn’t do so with a whole lot of passion or conviction. The Moonstone is brilliantly constructed—no one can match Collins (1824-1889) for an intricately orchestrated plot—and perfect for a long summer holiday. Still, to enjoy it fully, you need to surrender to a slower narrative rhythm than you might be used to.

That’s probably what put me off when, at the age of 13, I first read the book in a Dolphin paperback. By then I was already a keen devotee of mysteries, having devoured stories and novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and Hercule Poirot. Somehow I had heard about The Moonstone and that eerie title alone was enough to make me daydream about its plot and characters. Might it be as thrilling as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar or Sax Rohmer’s The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu?

It wasn’t. Given my age, I expected a boy’s adventure about an accursed gem, but found instead a grown-up’s novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Not that the book didn’t begin well, with an account of how, in 1799 , an English soldier tore the sacred diamond from the head of a Hindu moon-god after murdering its guardian priests. Half a century later, in 1848, that same soldier wills the diamond—which he has kept secreted for all these years in a London bank—to a niece he has never seen. Why? Is it an act of revenge against the family which has (rightly) shunned him as a villainous brute?

All that was certainly good stuff. But then, to my youthful disappointment, the first section of the novel proper was narrated by a garrulous old servant named Gabriel Betteredge, who repeatedly turns to Robinson Crusoe for life-counsel as others do the Scriptures. More to my taste were Collins’s hints of the uncanny. On the day that the diamond is withdrawn from a London bank for delivery to Miss Rachel Verinder we learn that three Indian jugglers have been glimpsed in the neighborhood of her country home in Yorkshire. We also learn that they are accompanied by a delicate, golden-haired little boy, who seems to be a kind of clairvoyant. After placing the child into a trance, the chief Indian is overheard to ask him, “Is it on the road to this house, and on no other, that the English gentleman will travel today?” Clearly, the Indians intend to waylay the handsome and cosmopolitan Mr. Franklin Blake, entrusted to deliver the Moonstone to his cousin Rachel on her 18th birthday.

As so often happens in novels, by the time of that fateful birthday dinner Franklin and Rachel have fallen in love, though no declarations have been made. Meanwhile, the oily philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite hovers about in the hope that Miss Verinder will change her mind and accept his own marriage proposal. To complicate matters further a servant girl and reformed thief named Rosanna Spearman acts with increasing strangeness in the presence of Mr. Blake.

As a boy, I found these erotic dynamics tedious, even if they might be important to solving the novel’s mysteries: Did the Indians ultimately steal the diamond? If not, who did and how and why? Much more to my taste were Collins’s depiction of the region’s unsettling geography. As Gabriel Betteredge writes:

The sand-hills here run down to the sea, and end in two spits of rock jutting out opposite each other, till you lose sight of them in the water. One is called the North Spit, and one the South. Between the two, shifting backwards and forwards at certain seasons of the year, lies the most horrible quicksand on the shores of Yorkshire. At the turn of the tide, something goes on in the unknown deeps below, which sets the whole face of the quicksand shivering and trembling, in a manner most remarkable to see, and which has given to it, among the people in our parts, the name of The Shivering Sand.

Young as I was, I already knew that, sooner or later, someone or something would eventually be sucked down into the depths of this oceanside horror. When that finally happens, Collins turns—as I now realize–to the gothic sublime, treating the scene like a painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

As I got near the shore, the clouds gathered back, and the rain came down, drifting in great white sheets of water before the wind. I heard the thunder of the sea on the sand-bank at the mouth of the bay. . . . Then I saw the raging sea, and the rollers tumbling in on the sand-bank, and the driven rain sweeping over the waters like a flying garment, and the yellow wilderness of the beach with one solitary black figure standing on it—the figure of Sergeant Cuff.

Sergeant Cuff! Even now that rank strikes me as exceptionally modest for the greatest police-detective in England. This is how Mr. Betteredge describes his initial appearance:

A fly from the railway drove up as I reached the lodge and out got a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck. His face was as sharp as a hatchet, and the skin of it was as yellow and dry and withered as an autumn leaf. His eyes, of a steely light grey, had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself. His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy; his long, lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker—or anything else you like, except what he really was.

Despite that last disavowal, who could mistake Cuff for anything but the very model of a great detective? Collins patterned him after Jack Whicher, the famous police officer in the Constance Kent murder case (most recently re-examined in Kate Summerscale’s best-selling The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher), and in him we can glimpse future aspects of Sherlock Holmes, the Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner and our own Lieutenant Columbo. Cuff even possesses an obsession with roses that equals Nero Wolfe’s passion for orchids. Most tellingly, though, Collins makes him fallible: Like Philip Trent in Trent’s Last Case, the detective initially draws the wrong inferences from the evidence. Frustrated, Cuff then disappears from the book for hundreds of pages.

At that point, my younger self should have recognized that Collins wasn’t just telling a straight-ahead mystery story. Upon rereading the book this past June, I found that all the things that annoyed me half a century ago now gave me immense pleasure. For instance, inspired by the example of a courtroom trial’s use of multiple witnesses, Collins features no fewer than eleven separate narrators, each a distinct personality. When the action of the novel shifts to London, we are treated to the comedy of the unconsciously hypocritical Miss Clack, a mean-spirited religious zealot who deposits worthy tracts wherever she goes. Her lip-service Christianity receives Collins’s scorn, even as the three Hindus—despite their periodic recourse to violence—are viewed as self-sacrificing and truly devout. In fact, the most admirable characters in the book tend to be its misfits and social outcasts, such as Rosanna Spearman, the angry, class-conscious and probably lesbian Limping Lucy, the mixed race, opium-addicted Ezra Jennings (whose kindness and detectival skills unlock the mystery), and the goggle-eyed little boy, nicknamed Gooseberry because of his eyes, whose wits and tracking skills help lead Cuff to the final, shocking truth.

By contrast to these insulted and injured, the well off and physically attractive often come across as shallow and neurotic. Even the “hero,” Franklin Blake, behaves at times like a wimp, a fool or a heartless cad. In a preface Collins declared that the novel was intended “to trace the influence of character on circumstances,” which may partly explain why Rachel is portrayed as volatile, stubborn, willful and proud. As one early critic observed, if she had acted sensibly, the whole mystery would have been cleared up in five minutes.

But then where would the reader’s pleasure be? Collins provides suspense and humor as well as romance and horror throughout this long book. Yet every detail in it is essential: Shake The Moonstone and nothing will fall out. Consider only the diverse guests at Rachel’s birthday dinner—each, however minor he or she may seem, is there for a reason. For example, after the party breaks up, Dr. Candy decides to drive home in the pouring rain. That can’t possibly be important, can it?

The Moonstone will always remain a landmark in the history of detective fiction, if only because it includes—often for the first time–such familiar conventions as the country house setting, the closed circle of suspects, a fair-play presentation of clues, a muddle-headed local constable, people in disguise, a great detective, various amateur sleuths and, not least, a surprise solution, followed by a second, even more shocking revelation. At the same time, the book is also a serious novel touching on a panoply of social and cultural issues. In its pages one can find overt or implicit criticism of class privilege, British colonialism, religious hypocrisy, the condition of women and many of the accepted Victorian proprieties.

Still, as Wilkie Collins himself stressed, telling a gripping story was always his primary concern. So if you enjoy The Moonstone, as so many readers do, you will want to try Collins’s other “sensation” novels of the 1860s, No Name, Armadale and his haunting masterpiece (and my favorite Victorian thriller), The Woman in White. They contain, to quote Thomas Hardy describing the fiction of that decade, “murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives,” and, of course, romance. But start with The Moonstone. Even after 150 years, this cunningly constructed mystery remains—as the saying goes—a classic of the genre.