The Moonstone
A Romance
Wilkie Collins
Ronald Pickup et al,

Wilkie Collins called it "A Romance," but that was just a catch-all for these extended novels from 150 years ago. Before it appeared in book form, it was being serialized, and was a tremendous hit. After six months appearing regularly in Charles Dickens' literary magazine, it was said that "Even the porters and boys were interested in the story, and read the new number in sly corners, and often with their packs on their backs." People would wait in line each week to get a copy. And for good reason.

You should know that, after listening to this recorded version of The Moonstone for the first hour, I was convinced that someone was going to steal the 17-disc album from my car while I was supposed to be at the office, or in bed, or busy somewhere else.

I was worried, because I wanted to be sure that I wouldn't miss the next chapter, or any other chapter. Sometimes, I would take off from my job (or my home) early to just drive around a bit so I could find out what Sargeant Cuff would discover next in his cool, competent way of solving the mystery of the missing diamond; or to find the reason the lovely, impeccable Rachel Verinder had so suddenly turned difficult, truculent, edgy, menacing; or to have the impossible Drusilla Clack --- she who leaves religious tracts like droppings of chickens in everyone's home --- reveal, if she knows, the possible hiding place of it, or at least the latest gossip; or to discover what the strange doctor Ezra Jennings would reveal in his attempt to reconstruct the scene of the crime; or, again, to see if the dry, eagle-eyed Sergeant Cuff would reluctantly leave retirement --- leaving behind his exotic roses --- to rejoin the case to prove what he had suspected all along: that is, who was the perpetrator of the theft of a jewel valued at many hundreds of thousands.

This all assured me that I was falling into what one of the characters here calls "detective fever." Which constantly forced me to try to figure out what next this devious, totally gripping writer could come up as part of his sinuous plot.

§   §   §

I have to reveal right now that I cannot, here, tell you much about the story. For, with something as rich and as multifaceted as The Moonstone, it would be lunacy for me, at this point, to essay to come up with one of those NYRB or New York Times Book Review plot summaries for you.

Suffice it to say that our young, lovely Rachel had been given, by a mysterious older relative from India, a great diamond of great value, one that is enormous, yellow like the waning moon. When she first chooses to wear it at her twenty-first birthday party at her house, she shows it to the guests, and her mother, and to her would-be fiancé, and to that oldest of worthies of all novels of the English gentry, in this case, our the loyal valet, Gabriel Betteredge.

On seeing the Moonstone, he exclaims,

    Lord bless us! it was a Diamond! As large, or nearly, as a plover's egg! The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and then shut the light out of the room, and it shown awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark. No wonder Miss Rachel was fascinated; no wonder her cousins screamed.

It was only her other cousin, the slypants Godfrey Ablewhite, who kept his cool. "He put an arm around each of his sisters' waists, and, looking compassionately backwards and forwards between the Diamond and me, said, 'Carbon, Betteredge! mere carbon . . . my good friend, after all!'"

Of course this being the high tide of colonialism, with its talk of the Mysterious East . . . and since this jewel had been stolen from the forehead of a "Hindoo" goddess, the diamond comes along with one of those vile Eastern curses. Indeed, during the course of this story, it is always shadowed by three Brahmins, godstruck Indians who are determined to return it to its proper site in the brow of the statue of the many-armed Kali. All of which, suddenly, reminded us how this very myth even gets brought into the mid-twentieth Century by, of all people, Ringo Starr.

For this is the same story that we find in Help! . . . the jewel that Ringo carries on his pinkie, the one that won't come off, the one that the Indians must recover, in order to renew their ceremony of sacrifice, the incantations of the smoke-filled chamber of ritual, and at the center of it all, the curse that falls on those who dare to disturb the mysterious ways of the East, the curse of the valuable rock (in the hands of the rockers), carrying the threat of death to the outsiders who presume to disturb the ritual and tradition of centuries hidden in a single stone.

Thus it is with Ringo; thus it is with the Verinder family, all who attend the party where Rachel unveils, on her lovely bosom, the Moonstone, a curse that now must come to fruition.

The good Lady Verinder soon dies of heart failure. The family physician, Dr. Candy, loses his ability to speak coherently because of a fever that comes right after the party. One of the housemaids kills herself. Rachel has a bitter falling out with her dear cousin Franklin Blake. And he, soon enough, is accused of the crime of theft. Thus he loses her troth and at time, it seems, his mind.

O it's a devilish curse.

§   §   §

I got all of this terrific story read aloud to me on the seventeen discs that came from Naxos, and thus got to hear it as most people did in England 1868 --- having it read aloud to the whole family, there before the fire, on a chilly evening in late winter, weeks after weeks after weeks.

Only I was able to carry this spellbinder with me in the car, and so each of my commutes was changed into an intoxicating journey into upper-class England of a century-and-a-half ago, there at the family spread in Yorkshire, with all the extended Verinder family, with their many visitors, and the six or seven housemaids and gardeners, and the ever-faithful butler Betteredge who has been in the family for well over fifty years. Betteredge, who reads Robinson Crusoe as others would the Bible, and why not? For the complexities of the curse of the Moonstone demand exquisite details to unwind the why and the how of it, ways only grasped as we make our patient, toilsome way through what some claim to be the first detective story in the English language.

Wikipedia suggests,

    The book is regarded by some as the precursor of the modern mystery novel and suspense novels. T. S. Eliot called it "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe." Dorothy L. Sayers called it "probably the very finest detective story ever written."

§   §   §

I hope I have given you enough interest to go find the book and read it --- or best of all, get this recorded version, allow yourself to be enraptured by Collins' words and by the nine readers who make up this album. Guaranteed: if you listen to the first disc, you'll be hooked.

But a warning: do not, repeat, do not read nor listen to a summary of The Moonstone, or look any place that will give you the slightest hint of the resolution.

I did so, half-way through the book, and I assure you that even one word --- and it is but a single word --- and the "detective fever" will be mostly lost to you, the unfolding story will be far less gripping, less entrancing, less sensational, less eye-popping.

Promise me you will avoid that fateful curse.

--- Pamela Wylie
Go to part of one of the
final chapters
of this book to get a taste of
Wilkie's impeccable style

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