Sunday, August 11, 2019

A hidden gem of detective literature

The newest title in the Monroe St. Press collection is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868 and regarded to this day as a trend-setting work of detective fiction. 

In 1848, relatives and friends of heiress Rachel Verinder gather at the family estate to celebrate her 18th birthday. On that day, Rachel inherits ownership of the Moonstone, an exotic (and possibly cursed) diamond bequeathed to her by her deceased uncle. When the Moonstone vanishes from her room that night,  an exhaustive investigation begins into who took the gem, and where it might be found. 

Although it was not the first English language detective story — Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and similar short stories predated it by more than 20 years — it is reckoned by some literary scholars/critics to be the first full-length English-language detective novel to attain popular success. Figures such as T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton considered it among the greatest British mystery stories of all time; in 2014 the British newspaper The Guardian ranked it No. 19 on its list of 100 Best Novels. 

The Moonstone established a number of conventions that remain staples of detective fiction to this day: 

— its setting on an upper class English country estate 
— the involvement of a professional investigator whose skill contrasts with the ineptitude of the local police
— introduction of "red herrings" and false suspects to keep the reader guessing 
— an elaborate reconstruction of the crime
— a final, shocking plot twist 

Author Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) was a novelist, playwright and essayist who worked closely with Charles Dickens and served as an editor of Dickens' periodical All the Year Round.  His other well-known works include The Woman in White (1859) and No Name (1862). Many of his writings touched upon issues considered sensational by Victorian standards, such as divorce, illegitimacy and the disadvantageous position of women in legal matters. 

The Monroe St. Press edition of The Moonstone is available at this link.  

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