Book Review: The Moonstone

Review Summary: 4/5 stars. Very fun read with lots of humor. The “mystery” is kind of lame, in my opinion, because there’s no way you could deduce who the thief is from the clues. Instead, you’re mostly following the revelation through the eyes of the characters. The use of different character perspectives is part of what creates most of the fun. Drusilla Clack is my favorite! The audiobook performance is excellent.

SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.

I finished listening to the audiobook of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins last night. It was a really fun “read!”

A little background on the book before I get into my review.  I picked up this book after hearing it recommended on the Criminal podcast by Marilyn Stasio, the NYT mystery book reviewer.

It was published in 1868 and is generally considered the first detective novel.  I guess I can understand why people say that, but I am inclined to quibble a little with the designation.

First of all, although there’s a detective in the novel, Sergeant Cuff, he’s not a main character and he doesn’t even really solve the crime. Wikipedia says that Franklin Blake, not Sergeant Cuff, is the “detective” in question.  But not only does he not emerge as a protagonist in the story until very late, he doesn’t even solve the mystery out of an urge to solve a crime, but to clear his own name and win back the love of his cousin, Rachel Verinder.  And he doesn’t really solve it so much as bother other people into doing things that reveal the solution.

Second, the mystery isn’t one that could be solved deductively from the clues provided.  I guessed at it through meta-analysis of the characters presented. My favorite character, Drusilla Clack, is the one who really gave it away for me.  She’s completely silly and her infatuation with Godfrey Ablewhite clenched it. And even the way the characters solve the mystery is highly, HIGHLY questionable.

However, I am willing to grant that perhaps I’m projecting my modern expectations on something that is just about 150 years old and the first of its kind.  Inarguably, the novel does contain a lot of hallmarks of a mystery novel that we take for granted today.

The book is composed of written statements from various characters who appear in the book.  The main background and description of the events leading up to the theft are presented by the main servant at the Verinder estate, Mr. Betteredge.  He’s an utterly lovable old man. And then other stages of the story are told by other characters in shorter sections.

The basic gist of the story is that Rachel Verinder’s uncle stole a sacred diamond from India and then left it to her in his will when he died as a gift for her birthday.  She wears it during her birthday party/dinner and then the diamond is stolen in the middle of the night. After lots of running around, they don’t find the diamond and, being 19th century British people, they refuse to have frank conversations about the events of the evening, which makes a lot of them seem stupid and/or guilty.  Ultimately, it turns out that Blake was slipped a laudanum roofie and took the diamond while sleep-walking. Then, Ablewhite found him with the diamond after Blake fully passed out and took it. Blake didn’t remember what happened, so Ablewhite was able to escape. Ablewhite pawned the diamond to pay some debts, and retrieves it a year later only be murdered by some Indian guys who’ve been trying to get the diamond back since it was stolen years earlier.  But Blake, Verinder, Cuff, Betteredge, et al. do figure out what happened and everyone lives happily ever after.

Mr. Betteredge is a very cute old man and I love him to bits, but my favorite character in the book is Drusilla Clack.  She’s a cousin to Rachel Verinder who lives in London.  Apparently, she’s not very well off and spends much of her time with religious charities for women.  And she makes a nuisance of herself to her friends and relatives by constantly trying to talk to them about her religion.  She even hides religious books in their houses and tries to trick them into reading passages from the books.  Clack is the epitome of the silly holy-roller type of person.

I was very frustrated by the fact that one could not actually deduce the solution to the mystery from the clues provided.  I would have much preferred to have all the pieces laid out for me including the red herrings and the solution and then read the book to piece through them.  But, again, this may be a modern expectation of mine. And even many modern mysteries rarely do this effectively.

Readers should be aware that this is a book of its time and the narrators are characters in the book.  So, you are exposed to a bit of casual racism, sexism, and other notions that we would regard as offensive today.  If you’re very sensitive to those things and find them unforgivable among people of the past, then I would recommend against reading any books from the past and certainly avoid this one.

Overall, the book is very fun.  The characters are pleasant and colorful.  The audiobook narrator gives a great performance with lots of voices and accents.  And it was a delight to experience this seminal work of literature!