Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Moonstone

(I read this for the Connecticut detective book discussion group. Warning: this will be a very long and fawning post.)

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. London: Penguin, 1981. (The book was originally published in 1868.)

I read both The Moonstone and The Woman in White back when I was working at the library. I was bored one day, started browsing through The Fiction Catalog in search of old mysteries and tales of the supernatural, and came across Wilkie Collins. I remembered having read somewhere that Collins had had an influence on Stephen King and immediately headed for the shelves to find his books.

Soon, I was staying up way too late, lying in bed, reading both those books, one right after the other. I remember which apartment was the setting for those late nights, which means I read them around 1992 or so. That's seventeen years ago. It's pretty amazing I can remember that much detail about why and when I read Collins.

Why the hell, then, do I barely remember a single thing about this book, one I know I loved? I might as well have been reading it for the first time. The only thing that really stuck in my mind was the quicksand and how it came into play -- not only how it came into play, but also the fact that quicksand, which I've always associated with such exotic places as Africa and South America, could be found in England. (Yorkshire, no less. There is obviously a reason Yorkshire is one of my favorite counties.)

It makes sense that I might remember the quicksand ("shivering sand," as Collins so evocatively calls it), but what makes no sense at all is that I had no recollection of the technique Collins used to tell this story, which is one of my favorite techniques, the reason I so love the likes of Lawrence Durrell. He allowed the various characters, those who were present at this "English country manor mystery," to tell the story themselves. This is not done in the typical detective novel sort of way in which Clever Detective interviews the various witnesses, and we get all kinds of contradictory information from (mostly despicable, although often with one or two sentimentally likable) characters until Clever Detective puts it all together and presents a solution to the puzzle.

No. Here we get the clever detective, called in to try to fix what is quickly becoming a botched case. He rivals Sherlock Holmes in his ability to gain the reader's trust and marvel at his genius. However, he disappears to tend a rose garden, leaving the suspects themselves to puzzle through the mystery. Each one writes his or her accounts of the events (that have now taken place a year ago), sometimes relying on journals, each one dependent on what could be faulty memories.

Trusting memory, as Collins proves on more than one occasion, is a very tricky business. I am a prime example of that. I am convinced I've told you the truth when I relate to you how I first came to read this book, that my memory is accurate. I have enough experience with my own memory to doubt these facts, though, because I know, for instance, that I read a long biography of Agatha Christie the summer I was fifteen, and my parents and brother and I traveled up to Scotland (through Yorkshire, by the way, when the Yorkshire Ripper was busy terrorizing people) from our home in Kent. However, I recall reading it in the back of a station wagon in which my family traveled around England and France when I was eight. Did I really read Collins in the apartment in which I remember reading him? Did I really read both books at the same time? Who knows?

But back to Collins's clever literary technique. I'm someone who is fascinated by the whole concept of "two sides to every story." As someone who has managed people in the business world and who has also lived in small villages and towns (not to mention having been associated with churches), I have often been privy to both sides of a story and know that the truth of it typically lies somewhere inbetween what can, at times, be two extremes. I also know that people see and hear exactly what they want to see and hear based on pre-conceived opinions and knowledge of others. Collins did a masterful job of drawing on these two characteristics of human nature. My two-sides-to-every-story fascination did not merely feed itself on this book: it gorged itself.

I'm also someone who, since my college days, has been fascinated by the whole notion of state-dependent memory. Yet again, I find myself completely baffled as to why I didn't have even the slightest recollection that state-dependent memory figures so prominently into this mystery. Perhaps I should have been reading this book, propped up in bed alone, in a sleep-deprived state, but I wasn't. Perhaps then I would have remembered more of its brilliance.

Brilliant (in case you have not yet gathered so) it is. I love the way Collins uses both the witnesses' biases and memory lapses to his advantage. I also love the way this book is so difficult to define, and I can understand why Doestoevsky was, apparently, such a fan of Collins's. Like Crime and Punishment, which can be characterized in many ways (albeit mostly different ones from this), this book could be characterized in any number of ways. Sure, it's a detective novel, but it's also a (Gothic) romance, satire, social commentary.

The man was a genius. 21st-century wannabe mystery writers would do well to follow his example. He had all the components of what's expected of the genre today: at least one dead body, suspects with motives, a detective (a real one, not some amateur one -- so popular in contemporary novels, in which it seems the most unlikely people from chefs to strippers find themselves solving crimes -- although he had plenty of help from amateurs), and even a dash of the supernatural.

Not only did Collins write a perfect page-turner, but he also did so with grace and humor. I can't believe it's taken me this long to tell you how funny he was. From satire to melodrama to complete lack of self-awareness to moments that were almost slap-stickish, it's obvious Collins had a very wry eye on the shenanigans in his book. Take this passage, for example:

"I wish certain parts of the house to be reopened," I said, "and to be furnished, exactly as they were furnished at this time last year."

Betteredge gave his imperfectly-pointed pencil a preliminary lick with his tongue. "Name the parts, Mr. Jennings!" he said loftily.

"First, the inner hall, leading to the chief staircase."

"First, the inner hall," Betteredge wrote. "Impossible to furnish that, sir, as it was furnished last year -- to begin with."


"Because there was a stuffed buzzard, Mr. Jennings, in the hall last year. When the family left, the buzzard was put away -- he burst."

"We will except the buzzard, then." (p. 454)

Maybe others wouldn't find this to be so funny, but stuck in the midst of a serious investigation, I find it hilarious in that absurdly "upper-crust" sort of way. British authors seem to have the most talent when it comes to shining bright lights on absurdity at just the right moment. I mean, a burst buzzard? Not a bear's head or a lion's head, or something equally impressive, but a buzzard, and it didn't get eaten by moths or something. No, it burst. That this should be what makes it impossible to duplicate the inner hall from last year and not because some precious chest has been damaged? Not because a love seat is being reupholstered? Priceless! (Don't worry. The buzzard and its association with carnage and how it feeds off others' misfortunes is not lost on me. Still, it's hilarious, right?) We then go onto discover another problem that keeps things from being exactly what they were: a cupid statue with a broken wing, and this is all taken very seriously by Betteredge and the others hoping to recreate the scene of the crime.

This scene is only one small example of the humor found throughout the book. We also have the aforementioned Betteredge's (rightful, in my book, and I'm sure Collins's too, but he did a good job of making it funny) obsession with Robinson Crusoe. We have a woman's obsession with saving souls and everyone else's equally strong obsessions not to have her save their souls with her books and tracts. We have numerous European stereotypes embodied in one man, ready to be observed by everyone but himself. All of this and more add to the delight of reading this book.

The book is brilliant to the end. Here's what we get in the final paragraph, "So the years pass, and repeat each other, so the same events revolve in the cycles of time." (p. 526) I won't bore you with how appropriate those lines are. Suffice it to say that this book itself, read in the 21st-century, with all sorts of characters recognizable from today's streets and headlines, is evidence of their appropriateness.

But I've gushed enough. You don't have to take my word for it. Read the book yourself to find out what a genius Collins was (and weep if you have aspirations of becoming a great mystery writer, which, fortunately, I don't. This is not to say that the writer in me did not experience moments of despair when encountering his powers of description). Now, to get to work on that state-dependent memory. If I'm going to remember not only that this is a great book but also why, well, I guess I'm just going to have to move to Mt. Desert Island, ME; do a lot of hiking every day; and drink things like Dark and Stormies and blueberry martinis.

P.S. Isn't that a fantastic cover? Way to go Penguin!


litlove said...

I've just read Dorothy's review and now yours and I really MUST get a hold of this book. It does sound delightful, and the buzzard was a hoot.

knitseashore said...

Like litlove, I've read both Dorothy's and your review, and you've talked me into this book. It will be at the top of my list when we hit the used book stores this fall.

Letter to come soon!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove and Ms. Knits, you will both LOVE it. I'm sure of it.

Rebecca H. said...

Great review! My memories of reading this book are equally important to me -- and equally vague and unreliable. Chances are my dad didn't even own the book I've given him credit for introducing me too. Oh, well. I remember loving it, and that's what matters, I suppose! I loved the humor in particular this time around -- Betteredge's voice was absolutely wonderful.

Anne Camille said...

Second recommendation to read Collins in as many weeks. Guess I should pay attention.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, Betteredge's was definitely my favorite voice. Such a perfect character.

Cam, absolutely!