The Jewel of Crime

Wilkie-Colliilns-002Audrey Niffenegger in the Guardian:

Readers are chaotic. I am, anyway. I read out of order: Franz Kafka before Mark Twain, Mary Shelley before Lady Murasaki. I read To Kill a Mockingbird at 45, Women in Love at 12 (not that I understood much of it, but I tried). A History of Literature based on my reading habits would be haphazard in the extreme. And I imagine that other readers behave much the same, hunting and gathering in libraries and bookstores, reading by whim, slowly accumulating an internal world, book by book.

It would be delightful to be able to read a book as its original readers did, to have the impact of the experience without knowing what would come after. Wilkie Collins's masterpiece, The Moonstone, must have seemed especially strange and new to its first readers. It was the first detective novel written in English. There are whole sections of bookstores, vast swaths of ISBNs devoted to The Moonstone's progeny. I happened to read it after the Sherlock Holmes stories, after Dracula, after Lord Peter Wimsey and Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe. But its first audience read it as a serial in Charles Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round. I suppose we could recreate this experience by reading one chapter each week and firmly putting the book away in the intervals, but I am much too impatient for that, myself.

In The Moonstone, Collins invents a number of characters, situations and strategies that would shape thousands of detective novels to come. He brought us the professional bumbling policeman who is forced to give way to the detective of superior genius; the gifted amateur sleuth and his less perceptive sidekick; the party at an isolated country house which becomes the scene of an inexplicable crime; the beautiful but perverse heroine; the battle between rationality and superstition; and the notion of fair play for the reader in the presentation of clues. It's true that a reader schooled by nearly 150 years of subsequent detective fiction won't have much trouble sorting out whodunit, but how they did it is quite ingenious, more than worthy of any later master of the genre.