Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Moonstone - danged absorbing mystery fiction!

(Just finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and reviewed it on Amazon. Some of this review refers to other Amazon reviews. You can find them all at The Moonstone's listing in Amazon. )

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins: A pleasurable immersion in Victorian England, a romantic mystery

4.0 out of 5 stars
December 7, 2010

By Rae Stabosz "stabosz" (Newark, DE) - See all my reviews

A previous reviewer notes that he became a fan of Victorian literature in his 70's. I am in my 60's, and have become a fan of the same due to my recent purchase of a Kindle. I am a lifelong reader. I bought the Kindle so I could pack a single "book" for a recent trip to Rome, rather than loading down my luggage with 6 or 7 as is usual on a trip. Then, being frugal (and the trip to Rome costing a pretty penny), I started downloading free books to my new Kindle. The great majority of these are works that are in the public domain, many of them from the Victorian era. Using this method, I downloaded a bunch of them, and to date have read Dracula (excellent!), The Home Life of Poe (like an extended People magazine interview), and The Moonstone (see herein).

I read Wilkie Collins as a girl, but so long ago that I don't remember if it was Woman in White, or The Moonstone, or both which I read. The Moonstone, I must confess, is a thoroughly engaging piece of mystery writing.

Collins uses the device of having the narrative told by several different first person narrators. In this, the book is like Dracula, whose story is told completely in letters, diary/journal entries, and newspaper clippings. In The Moonstone, the narratives are written after the mystery has been solved, to fulfill a request that each person who had witnessed key moments having to do with the mystery put down in writing only what they witnessed and observed. The individuals of whom this request is made then consult not just their memories but also their own diaries and household records, to put together testimony written after the fact which maintains the urgency and freshness of the original sources, with a bit of reflection by each narrator which nevertheless never provides plot spoilers.

Other reviewers have written about Gabriel Betteridge, the valued and loyal major domo of the Verinder household, and about Miss Clack, the hilariously clueless spinster cousin who is a Peerless Evangelizer of the Christian Gospel in her own mind. These narrators are indeed wonderful. From Betteridge, we receive our best portrait of Sergeant Cuff -- "the mighty Cuff" -- the police detective hired to discover who stole the Moonstone after the local authorities botch the job badly. Althought Sergeant Cuff gets to narrate a very small part of the story himself, it is in Betteridge's chronicle that we get the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a detective who has the idiosyncrasies of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe et al, even though he is not as central to the story as those worthies.

Ezra Jennings is a melancholy character who enters the story in its later chapters. It was his narrative that I found most exceptionally stirring. Jennings is a physician's assistant with a checkered past and a foreign demeanor, treated as an outsider and trusted by few.

Rosanna Spears, a hunch-backed maid taken into the Verinder household after a stint in a woman's reformatory, is another melancholy character whose actions stem from motives that transcend class or station in life. I confess that in her story I found myself angriest at the rigid class distinctions that in every generation predispose some folks to fortune and some to misfortune - the Victorians had no monopoly on this any more than do we. Rosanna suffered the double whammy of poverty and feminine ugliness. If Rachel Verinder has been a servant but retained all of her beauty, her fate would have gone better than Rosanna's, just as Rosanna would have had a better (if not happier) life if she had been an heiress with a humb-back.

The Moonstone has all the ingredients of a delicious mystery tale -- adventure, romance, a MacGuffin that is the priceless jewel of a centuries-long-worshiped idol, murder, theft, passion, coincidence misinterpreted, and Robinson Crusoe. What more could a mystery lover want?

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