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Second Glance: No Lesser Crime

By (November 1, 2013) 3 Comments

The Moonstone1

By Wilkie Collins

In 1928, during crime fiction’s Golden Age, S. S. Van Dine (author of the popular Philo Vance series) wrote up “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel,” he declared:

and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.

Happily, Wilkie Collins, writing sixty years earlier, didn’t know the rules, and so he blithely centered his novel The Moonstone (which T. S. Eliot famously called “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”) on the mysterious disappearance of a fabulous diamond from a young woman’s bedroom. It’s Collins’s genius that he invests that one gleaming stone (“mere carbon,” as one character coolly reminds his more excitable friends) with enough significance, and embeds it in enough drama, that no reader could find the abundant pother in The Moonstone’s nearly 500 pages disproportionate. For not only is the diamond itself unfathomably beautiful and incredibly valuable, but puzzling out who took it and why involves us in problems far less easily resolved than theft — from imperial aggression abroad to xenophobia and class oppression at home, from the limits of characters’ self-knowledge to broad epistemological questions about evidence, knowledge, and truth. What’s a simple corpse, however dead, to all this?

Collins wouldn’t have cared that he was breaking the rules of detective fiction anyway, for he didn’t know that was what he was writing: in its own day, The Moonstone was seen rather as an example of “sensation fiction,” a genre Collins launched with his 1860 novel The Woman in White. Sensation fiction took the by-then familiar conventions of gothic novels and relocated them so that their terrors lay no longer at a safe distance either geographically or historically. As Henry James explained in an 1865 essay,

To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors. This innovation gave a new impetus to the literature of horrors. It was fatal to the authority of Mrs. Radcliffe and her everlasting castle in the Appenines. What are the Appenines to us, or we to the Appenines? Instead of the terrors of ‘Udolpho,’ we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house and busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible.

Many characteristically sensational elements are apparent in The Moonstone, including the shivery frisson that gave the genre its name (sensation novels preached, protested one critic, “to the nerves instead of the judgement”).

2But in its focus on the commission, consequences, and solution of a single crime, The Moonstone also has what would come to be the defining structure of the detective novel, a form only just emerging with any distinctness from its many literary antecedents. In the 1840s, Poe’s stories of ratiocination, featuring the enigmatic genius C. Auguste Dupin, had established what would become the classic conventions; in Bleak House (1853), Dickens created the equally memorable Inspector Bucket, and embedded a crime story in a novel that is also part social critique, part moral allegory. What Collins did in The Moonstone was to combine single-minded attention to a particular case with Dickensian breadth, and bring to the experiment an exuberant narrative virtuosity all his own.

The Moonstone is built on the model of courtroom testimony: each part is told by a different character speaking “as far as our own personal experience ends, and no farther.” They are eyewitnesses, that is, but that doesn’t mean we can take their testimony as authoritative, for how we interpret (or, as is more often the case, misinterpret) what we see is one of Collins’s central themes: seeing is not sufficient for knowing, and even the evidence of our senses can be misleading. Far from being lulled into trusting these narrators, we are reminded at every point just how idiosyncratic and imperfect they are — how much, that is, they are like us, especially in their difficulty seeing beyond their own assumptions and prejudices. That doesn’t render their observations valueless, but it does mean that if we hope to arrive at the truth we need to arrive at a version of the story that is more than the sum of its highly subjective parts.

The Prologue of The Moonstone, set fifty years before the main action, plunges us into the midst of a violent episode in British imperial history. Its unnamed narrator writes home to explain why he severed ties with his cousin,3 John Herncastle, after they both participated in the storming of the Indian city of Seringapatam by British troops. The army’s objective is to put down the rebellious Sultan Tippoo, among whose treasures is said to be a dagger set with the legendary Moonstone. Plundered from a Hindu shrine in the eleventh century, this diamond has “passed . . . from one lawless Mohammedan hand to another” ever since, followed by a succession of Brahmins tasked to guard it until “the will of Vishnu the preserver should restore to them their sacred gem.” The diamond also brings with it a curse: “disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house who received it after him.”

Herncastle, obsessed with the story of the Moonstone, has sworn he will make it his if Tippoo falls. During the confusion after the city is taken, Herncastle’s cousin is trying to establish order among the plundering soldiers when he hears a cry in a nearby room. Rushing in past the bodies of two Indian officers lying dead across the threshold, he sees a horrifying tableau:

A third Indian, mortally wounded, was sinking at the feet of a man whose back was towards me. The man turned at the instant when I came in, and I saw John Herncastle, with a torch in one hand, and a dagger dripping with blood in the other. A stone, set like a pommel, in the end of the dagger’s handle, flashed in the torchlight, as he turned on me, like a gleam of fire. The dying Indian sank to his knees, pointed to the dagger in Herncastle’s hand, and said, in his native language: — ‘The Moonstone will have its vengeance yet on you and yours!’ He spoke those words, and fell dead on the floor.

The Koh-i-noor Diamond

The Koh-i-noor Diamond

The cousin does not actually see Herncastle kill the Indians, and Herncastle never admits his guilt. “I have,” says the cousin, “no evidence but moral evidence,” and thus his only consolation is his conviction that “crime brings its own fatality.” And with the warning that “others will live to regret taking it from [Herncastle], if he gives the Diamond away,” we are ready for the novel that follows.

Our story proper begins with the reappearance of the Moonstone in a way that confirms — at least by inference — Herncastle’s guilt: in his will, he has left the cursed diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on the occasion of her 18th birthday. We hear the story of Rachel’s inheritance, and of the diamond’s subsequent disappearance from her bedroom, from Gabriel Betteredge, a loyal servant of the Verinder family. He’s the most delightfully eccentric old codger you’ll ever meet, with his near-religious fixation on Robinson Crusoe (“When my spirits are bad — Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice — Robinson Crusoe”) and his severely practical outlook. “The woman I fixed my eye on,” he tells us when recounting his long-ago marriage:

was the woman who kept house for me at my cottage. Her name was Selina Goby. I agree with the late William Cobbett about picking a wife. See that she chews her food well and sets her foot down firmly on the ground when she walks, and you’re all right. Selina Goby was all right in both these respects, which was one reason for marrying her. I had another reason, likewise, entirely of my own discovering. Selina, being a single woman, made me pay so much a week for her board and services. Selina, being my wife, couldn’t charge for her board, and would have to give me her services for nothing. That was the point of view I looked at it from. Economy — with a dash of love. I put it to my mistress, as in duty bound, just as I had put it to myself.

“I have been turning Selina Goby over in my mind,” I said, “and I think, my lady, it will be cheaper to marry her than to keep her.”

The resulting union gives Betteredge what I consider unmatched insight into the complexities of marriage:

When I wanted to go upstairs, there was my wife coming down; or when my wife wanted to go down, there was I coming up. That is married life, according to my experience of it.

Betteredge is dedicated to the Verinders and the orderly, privileged world they represent — which means he is also blind to its faults, including its rigid class hierarchies and unreflecting xenophobia. To Betteredge, Herncastle’s gift threatens the Verinders’ innocent lives: “here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian diamond.”

5Poor Betteredge! It’s understandable that he would assume that crime comes from outside the family, but having read the Prologue we are only too aware that there’s plenty of guilt to go around. When Lady Verinder urges Rachel to lock up the diamond, and in response Rachel demands indignantly, “Good Heavens, mamma! . . . Are there thieves in the house?” we hear an irony that’s lost on the characters themselves — and that’s only intensified when, after the diamond goes missing, not one English character shows any awareness that it was stolen property in the first place.

To solve the crime, Lady Verinder hires Sergeant Cuff from the recently established Detective Department of Scotland Yard. With his “decent black” clothes and restrained demeanor, Cuff embodies the hard-won respectability of the professional police officer. But he also proves a disquieting presence because of his sharp eye, ruthless judgment, and disregard for the prejudices that govern the Verinder household. Superintendent Seegrave, the local policeman first on the scene, readily assumed that either the Indians or the servants were to blame. Cuff, in contrast, subjects everyone equally to his cold scrutiny. And, like his great successor Sherlock Holmes, Cuff observes where lesser mortals merely see. There’s a small paint smear on Rachel’s bedroom door, for instance, that Seegrave dismisses as “a mere trifle.” This casual comment incites Cuff to “give us, in his melancholy way, the first taste of his quality”:

“I made a private inquiry last week, Mr Superintendent,” he said. “At one end of the inquiry there was a murder, and at the other end there was a spot of ink on a tablecloth that nobody could account for. In all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty little world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.”

The paint smear does turn out to be the key to the mystery, but Collins’s interest is not primarily in material evidence and the tempting puzzles it can pose to the ingenious thinker. In his Preface to the novel, he states that his intent is “to trace the influence of character on circumstances.” Cuff’s weakness turns out to be that, clever as he is at deciphering clues, he’s not so good at understanding people.

6It’s Rachel herself, in particular, whose strange behavior after the Moonstone’s disappearance — particularly her estrangement from her handsome young cousin Franklin Blake — baffles not just Cuff but everyone for most of the novel. Cuff, however, thinks he understands Rachel perfectly. His logic is simple: young ladies get into debt and take any steps necessary to get out again; Rachel is a young lady; therefore, Rachel has ‘stolen’ her own diamond to pay her (presumed) debts. His attempt to fix Rachel’s guilt, however, is countered by Lady Verinder’s unshakeable belief in her daughter’s character. “You don’t know her and I do” may not be the most scientific way to refute a theory, but Cuff is thwarted nonetheless and returns to London with the case unsolved.

I’m always sorry to leave Betteredge behind, but our next narrator, the “rampant spinster” Miss Drusilla Clack, is so much snarky fun that the feeling quickly passes. Like his contemporary Robert Browning, Collins excels at giving his creations just enough narrative rope in their monologues to hang themselves:

My wealthy relative — would that I could add my spiritually-wealthy relative! — writes, without even an attempt at disguising that he wants something of me. The whim has seized him to stir up the deplorable scandal of the Moonstone: and I am to help him by writing the account of what I myself witnessed while visiting at Aunt Verinder’s house in London. Pecuniary remuneration is offered to me — with the want of feeling peculiar to the rich. I am to re-open wounds that Time has barely closed; I am to recall the most intensely painful remembrances — and this done, I am to feel myself compensated by a new laceration, in the shape of Mr. Blake’s cheque. My nature is weak. It cost me a hard struggle, before Christian humility conquered sinful pride, and self-denial accepted the cheque.

She’s not just a farcical character, though: the particular ways in which Miss Clack is flawed amplify the critique of religious hypocrisy that runs through the novel. Through her Collins especially skewers those who believe faith is best proven through intrusive deeds: Miss Clack’s relentless distribution of religious tracts — The Serpent at Home, for instance, with edifying chapters on “Satan in the Hair Brush” and “Satan among the Sofa Cushions” — satirically trivializes the crusading zeal of British colonialism.

7Miss Clack’s religious enthusiasm is also disturbingly conflated with erotic energy, the main focus of which is the noble philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite. (He and Miss Clack are deeply involved with the “Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion Society,” which takes “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker” and resizes them “to suit the proportions of the innocent son” — in effect, that is, they pants “the irreclaimable parent”!) Godfrey has been courting Rachel Verinder, and even becomes engaged to her, despite her frank confession that she loves another man. When Rachel later breaks off this engagement, Miss Clack is only too happy to console Godfrey by reminding him of his Christian duties:

He compared himself, as I went on, to a lost man emerging from the darkness into the light. When I answered for a loving reception of him at the Mothers’- Small-Clothes, the grateful heart of our Christian Hero overflowed. He pressed my hands alternately to his lips. Overwhelmed by the exquisite triumph of having got him back among us, I let him do what he liked with my hands. I closed my eyes. I felt my head, in an ecstasy of spiritual self-forgetfulness, sinking on his shoulder.

Miss Clack’s jealousy makes her a particularly sharp, if hardly objective, observer of Rachel, whose wayward behaviour continues to puzzle everyone around her. But despite — or perhaps because of — Miss Clack’s hostility towards her, Rachel is not an unsympathetic character. From the start, in fact, she has been marked as an unconventional heroine: small and unfashionably dark, and, as Betteredge observes, “unlike most other girls of her age, in this — that she had ideas of her own.” In a woman, such independence of mind has, the family lawyer notes,

the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex, and so exposing her to misconstruction to the general opinion.

So it has been for Rachel, beginning with Cuff’s conclusion that she herself has “stolen” the Moonstone and continuing on through her “jilting” of Godfrey. Though Miss Clack sees her as scandalously short on propriety and Christian humility, in a world otherwise characterized by elitism and hypocrisy Rachel’s principled, if tempestuous, nonconformity perhaps promises better things to come.

8Midway through the novel we are not much closer to solving the mystery of the Moonstone’s disappearance, but it’s abundantly clear by then that we won’t succeed at that until we first solve the puzzle that is Rachel. Nobody has a greater stake in figuring that out than Franklin Blake, who now takes his turn as narrator. Franklin was once the most likely suspect to win Rachel’s heart and hand, and he brings an urgency to the investigation that Cuff could never match, because his future happiness rests on the outcome of the case. “I am determined,” he declares, “to find out the secret of her silence towards her mother, and her enmity towards me. If time, pains, and money can do it, I will lay my hand on the thief who took the Moonstone!”

In his quest to uncover the truth Franklin is assisted by two people who have suffered personally from the biases of upper-class English society. The important role of their testimony implicitly declares that the world will be a better place — a more just place — when everyone’s participation is valued equally. One is the Verinders’ servant, the deformed reformed thief Rosanna Spearman. We first met her during Betteredge’s narrative: there, she was an object of pity for her alienation from those around her and for her hopeless love for Franklin, to which he was fatally oblivious — literally, for Rosanna kills herself in despair over his indifference. She leaves him a heart-wrenching letter recounting her own sad story along with her version of the events surrounding the diamond’s disappearance:

I went on getting fonder and fonder of you, just as if I was a lady in your own rank of life, and the most beautiful creature your eyes ever rested on. I tried — oh dear, how I tried — to get you to look at me. If you had known how I used to cry at night with the misery and the mortification of your never taking any notice of me, you would have pitied me perhaps, and have given me a look now and then to live on.

Through her letter, we learn that before she went to her tragic death in the “Shivering Sands,” she took extraordinary measures — in his interests, as she thought — which have long held up the investigation.

Both her letter and the evidence she has concealed are revelations to Franklin and to us, but at this point my own narrative must, of necessity, become as reticent as any coy Victorian heroine, so as not to spoil the wonderful 9surprise Collins has prepared — one that would have earned him the ire of the famous Detection Club as surely as the twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd did for Agatha Christie. I will say that what Franklin discovers through Rosanna takes to an extreme Collins’s themes of lack of self-knowledge and the unreliability of eye-witness testimony. So, too, the final disclosure of who is guilty, and of what, turns upside down the assumptions of all the main characters about what the face of crime looks like.

We are prepared somewhat for this unmasking because of another of Franklin’s allies in solving the mystery: the “remarkable-looking” Ezra Jennings. Even open-minded Franklin admits, when he first meets Ezra, that “his appearance is against him”:

His complexion was of a gypsy darkness; his fleshless cheeks had fallen into deep hollows, over which the bone projected like a pent-house. . . . His marks and wrinkles were innumerable. From this strange face, eyes, stranger still, of the softest brown — eyes dreamy and mournful, and deeply sunk in their orbits — looked out at you, and (in my case at least) took your attention captive at their will. Add to this a quantity of thick closely-curling hair, which by some freak of Nature, had lost its colour in the most startlingly partial and capricious manner. Over the top of his head it was still of the deep black which was his natural colour. Round the sides of his head — without the slightest gradation of grey to break the force of the extraordinary contrast — it had turned completely white.

His physical oddities literalize his character, which is similarly divided between English and colonial, masculine and feminine, scientific and imaginative. In Ezra’s own life he has experienced the pain of being misunderstood and vilified, unable to prove his own innocence and thus condemned to a life of alienation. For him, solving the mystery of the Moonstone thus becomes nearly as personal as it is for Franklin.

10Together, Ezra and Franklin contrive an ingenious experiment that answers many but not all of the questions about the theft of the Moonstone — enough to reconcile Rachel and Franklin, but not enough for a definitive identification of the criminal, or for the restoration of the diamond. But, with the help of Sergeant Cuff (unshaken by his previous failure — “it’s only in books,” as he says, “that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake”) as well as a sharp-eyed young fellow known as “Gooseberry,” both the diamond and the culprit are eventually tracked to a pub aptly named “The Wheel of Fortune.” There, the wheel takes another turn: the thief becomes the victim, and the Moonstone once more disappears. The final “reveal” in fact has striking parallels to the tableau in the Prologue: we see the effects, but don’t witness the actions that lead to them, and so we construct a story to tell about it, inferring the facts from the material evidence. Further, though one mystery is resolved, we are left with a new one — a murder mystery this time, and a locked room mystery to boot — and though we may believe we know whodunit, we have (again) “moral, if not legal, evidence.”

The elusiveness of absolute certainty is unsettling, but it’s also appropriate in a novel where fixing guilt, or proclaiming innocence, in any particular case is complicated by the complicity of every character in some form of systemic wrongdoing, from racism to religious bigotry, from unknowingly profiting by imperial plunder to wilful fraud, theft, or murder. Even Rachel and Franklin, who come further than anyone else in acknowledging injustices more insidious than those that can be formally prosecuted, seem oblivious to their error in laying any claim at all to the stone they casually call “the Indian diamond.”

In the novel’s final scene, we see the Moonstone one more time, in a context which seems to confirm our suspicions about who did what and why in that locked room at the “Wheel of Fortune.” A report comes back from the holy city of Somnauth of “a great religious ceremony.” As three Brahmins set forth from to seek “purification by pilgrimage” for having “forfeited their caste in service of the god,” the shrine before which they have prostrated themselves is revealed to the awed spectator:

There, raised high on a throne — seated on his typical antelope, with his four arms stretching towards the four corners of the earth — there, soared above us, dark and awful in the mystic light of heaven, the god of the Moon. And there, in the forehead of the deity, gleamed the yellow Diamond, whose splendour had last shone on me in England, from the bosom of a woman’s dress!

Yes! after the lapse of eight centuries, the Moonstone looks forth once more, over the walls of the sacred city in which its story first began.

What are we to make of this ending? Its spiritual grandeur suggests justice on a grand scale has finally been served — but its exoticism reinforces narrow-minded views like Betteredge’s about Indians as dangerously alien. Is the Brahmins’ (presumed) murder of the English thief justified because it was “in service of the god”? Or is this just another case of the Moonstone passing from one lawless hand to another? However we interpret it, we can hardly believe, given what we’ve seen in the novel of the human propensity for greed, violence, and self-deception, that the diamond will remain inviolate in its sacred setting for very long. “What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone?” wonders our final narrator. “Who can tell?” If only there were a sequel — but alas, for us this is the end.

Rohan Maitzen teaches courses in Victorian literature and detective fiction at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.