Romancing the (Moon)Stone Again

« The first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe « 

These are the famous words T.S. Eliot used to express his admiration for Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, an endorsement that has graced almost every edition of the book ever since. While the matter of it really being the first and the best of its kind remains open to debate, most modern scholars and readers readily agree with the overall sentiment, namely that The Moonstone is a work of considerable artistry and of no less considerable historical importance. I don’t dispute the former, being a long-time admirer of the book, but the latter claim I’m finding increasingly dubious. The Moonstone certainly was ahead of its time, but was it really influential enough to bring about the detective novel as we know it?

The main feature of milestones is that they are immediately identified as something new, even by people who don’t like them, and soon generate emulation and imitation. The Moonstone admittedly was an instant success with both readers and critics, but neither as far as I know saw it as a game-changer – it was « just » another superior sensation novel from an undisputed master of the genre. Collins himself was probably not aware that his new book was something different from the previous ones and would only rarely venture into that territory again in his subsequent work. What’s more, the book elicited little reaction from his fellow writers. No one tried to write « another Moonstone » except for his old friend/rival Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood which he sadly couldn’t finish. Collins, like Poe thirty years before, was an accidental inventor with no or little immediate posterity.

If we are to find a contemporary crime writer whose writing genuinely was influential, then we have to cross the Channel to meet Emile Gaboriau. His books tick all the boxes listed above as they were instantly recognized as a new genre, were tremendously popular and above all they were influential. It’s telling that Conan Doyle when asked about his influences always listed Poe and Gaboriau but never Collins. Conversely, Fergus Hume read the whole Gaboriau canon before setting to write The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Collins himself, who was fluent in French, read his books. Gaboriau was everywhere in Victorian crime fiction, either as a model or more rarely as a foil.

How then did The Moonstone rise again to attain milestone status? The main reason is the evolution of the detective story in the first decades of the twentieth century. As writers turned away from demonstration to misdirection and tried to forget their proletarian origins, they went looking for another patron saint that would better reflect their new priorities – and they found Collins and his Moonstone. The ubiquity of Eliot’s quote often overshadows Dorothy L. Sayers’ role in this « resurrection »as she never missed an occasion to praise Collins’s book as the ideal detective story both on plotting and literary grounds. The Moonstone as ancestor of the British detective fiction school is largely a Golden Age fabrication rather than a historical fact.

None of what precedes is meant to belittle Collins’s achievement – The Moonstone is a wonderful book and yes, a genuine detective novel written at the time when the term itself didn’t exist. Still, its place in the history of the genre is that of a lone forerunner and not a direct ancestor, which after all is not that bad either.

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