I truly did mean to get a wonderful post up on Darwin and his geological researches. Had a goodly amount of research done and everything. Then I made a serious mistake – I started Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone as a bit of light reading over lunch on Saturday.
I’ve meant to read it for a long time, ever since I saw it mentioned by John Douglas in Mindhunter. It’s one of the first – arguably the first – English-language detective novel. Its Sergent Cuff, brilliant member of the Detective Police, is based on Inspector Jonathan Whicher, a Scotland Yard detective whose obsession over a nightgown seems to have made something in Wilkie’s imagination go ping.
I figured it would be worth reading for strictly historical interest. If I’d known I’d become as obsessed by the story as Wilkie was over nightgowns, I’d have waited until after Darwin Day.
It’s a sign of genius when, although the narrators either annoy or infuriate you, you still can’t stop reading. Between the Robinson Crusoe addict who couldn’t stay on topic and the religious fanatic who made me wish fervently for a handy murderer, there should have been plenty of reason to put the book down and do up Darwin. This was, alas, impossible. I wanted to strangle certain characters too much, for one, and got too involved with the puzzle, for another. Then came folks I genuinely liked, some I even came to love. And, every time it seemed Wilkie was gonna weasel and do something weak, lame or both, he’d do something brilliant instead. The constant threat of the paranormal, amnesia and sleepwalking hang over your head. But he’s not a crude writer. He doesn’t choose the easy way out. He’s clever. I like that in a writer, especially a Victorian-era one.
In the end, I finished satisfied, if a bit stunned by the lack of bodies – I’ve read so much Agatha Christie that I automatically assume that the morgue should be filled to bursting by the end of the book, and winced every time someone delayed in telling somebody something, sure this meant their imminent demise. Wilkie however, manages a ripping good tale with few fatalities. It’s a refreshing change.
Anyway. I swear to you, I’ll have ye olde belated Darwin Day post up soonish. In the meantime, if you’re desperate for something to read, go hunt up a copy of The Moonstone. It’s free at the Kindle store, or available through Project Gutenberg. There’s even some geology in it – very nice use of some suspect sand on the Yorkshire coast. Not to mention an enormous chunk of carbon at the heart of everything. It’s amazing the shenanigans people get up to when enormous chunks of crystalized carbon are involved. Atheists in the audience will appreciate the treatment of the above-mentioned religious fanatic and other sundry fanatics. Writers will thrill to the fancy literary footwork in which, even in the first person, the author manages to get across things about the narrator that the narrator doesn’t realize about him-or-herself, allowing the audience to snigger behind their hands without feeling ill-used. And fans of Robinson Crusoe will find their adoration shared by a venerable old gentleman who swears that book holds all the answers one could ever need in life.
I’m not willing to go quite that far with The Moonstone. But I will avow it’s a book that any person interested in detective fiction or the art of writing should certainly read at least once. Even if it does mean that some prior obligations must be punked off due to the unfortunate fact that the bloody thing’s impossible to put down once fairly underway.