Written in 1859 and 1868, the Woman in White and the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins are considered to be among the first English detective novels and the forerunners for modern mystery and suspense. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes didn’t appear until about twenty years later. Collins used many of the devices that are still characteristic of modern mysteries: red herrings, multiple suspects, a professional detective, bungling policemen, sleuthing techniques, a large manor, and as the Moonstone‘s Betteredge would say, amateurs with “detective-fever”.
In the Woman in White, Walter Hartright is employed as an art instructor for two young women. He falls in love with Laura Fairlie, who is engaged to another whose only interest lies in her fortune. Stripped of her identity and some of her sanity, Laura is rescued by Walter and her half-sister, Marion Halcombe. Together they work to uncover the fraudulent plot and untangle the dark secret of the ghostly woman who keeps appearing.
In the Moonstone, Rachel Verinder is bequeathed a large Indian diamond from her uncle on her eighteenth birthday. Excited by her inheritance, Rachel wears the diamond for the celebration’s guests to see, including three Indian jugglers who came calling. The following morning, it’s discovered that the Moonstone was stolen. Fingers point in different directions, but the question remains, whodunnit? No, it wasn’t the butler with the pipe in the library.
As Collins states in the Woman in White‘s preamble, both stories are “told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness”. In the Moonstone, the loyal and proper Gabriel Betteredge describes his employer and her daughter as a rare breed among women because they’re sensible and competent. According to Miss Clack, her cousins’ souls need saving and she’s more interested in recalling her attempts to aid them in that venture than shedding light on the situation at hand. Whereas the recollections of Betteredge and Clack are casual and humorous, the reports of the family’s lawyer and the detective are strictly business. Also drawing on his legal training, characters’ letters, diary entries, and reports tell of what was seen and experienced first hand and each narrator picks up where the other left off. Collins’s multi-narration, epistolary method makes the mysteries move quickly while giving a three dimensional view of everyone involved.
Under the guise of sensation novels, Collins comments on England’s Victorian society. He shows how easy it was for women to be financially taken advantage of and used. The notions that one sex and class was better than the other is very apparent. Whether a wealthy woman or a steward, one needed to remember their place and behave accordingly. Collins portrays religious fanatics as absurd through Miss Clack, a devout Christian who goes to church multiple times a day and leaves a dozen leaflets around her cousins’ house to be read. Instead of tipping a cab driver, she gives him a pamphlet on swearing. As I’m currently reading the Black Robe, I can see how the two mysteries are considered to be the best works of Collins, who continued his social commentary in a less thrilling vein.
The two novels in question have complex plots full of twists and turns, drama, suspense, and more questions than answers. I read the Woman in White in 2006 to see what Andrew Lloyd Webber changed for his musical of the same title. I spent many nights burning the midnight candle to see what happened next. I like the Moonstone, but not as much as the Woman in White, which I consider more of an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller. I’m not much of a mystery reader, but I really enjoyed and recommend these Collins classics.