Wilkie Collins originally wrote The Moonstone in 1868 for weekly serialization in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round. Though Dickens himself was fairly critical of the story, the reading public lapped it up, and it quickly became one of Collins’s most popular and enduring works. It is considered by many to be the prototype mystery/detective novel, though it is worth mentioning that there are Edgar Allan Poe short stories which pre-date it. It did however introduce a number of the genre’s classic elements: a closed pool of suspects, a number of red herrings thrown in, and the most spectacular least-likely suspect there has ever been.
It’s a long book with some beautifully painted characters. Collins goes to great lengths to give each of his half-a-dozen-or-so narrators a distinctive, individual voice, and, in so doing, makes one or two of them sound extremely dated to modern ears. But the majority of the novel remains surprisingly readable.
While he was writing The Moonstone Collins became addicted to laudanum, an opiate he took to manage the pain caused by his gout. His mother died at the point he was working on the rather comic Miss Clack’s narrative. In spite of his grief and his growing addiction he still managed to keep on writing.
At the time—and for the next fifty-or-so years—the magazine serialization of novels (or in Arthur Conan Doyle’s case, the sale to magazines of his individual short stories) was extremely big business, with top-selling authors commanding astronomical fees for their work; so astronomical that subsequent book sales were often considered as secondary. But the serial demanded a certain style of writing: each week required a cliff-hanger ending to keep the readers’ attention engaged, and readers’ memories would need to be jogged about events that they’d read about weeks or even months before. I’m not entirely certain why such serializations fell out of favour, but they did. It’s a pity because they are capable of producing truly wonderful results, as is the case with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate. However, with the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, I’ve noticed that it’s resurfacing again.
Click here to download a free copy of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins from the wonderful Project Gutenburg. Available in MOBI and ePub formats, and to read online.