Tuesday, July 23, 2019

47. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This was a cool find, though not by me.  There is a very nice bookshelf of free books in the basement/laundry area of the apartment where we stay in Vancouver. It is usually pretty mainstream stuff (almost a dozen Lee Child's) which is nice if you are desperate, but it is not often I find anything of true value there.  My wife grabbed this one, after I thought I had thoroughly checked the shelf, and she thought I might find it interesting.  She was correct!  I didn't even know it existed nor its import in the history of detective fiction, so a fail on the part of my education there.

As it says on the back cover, The Moonstone is one of the earliest detective stories in English fiction.  It was originally serialized in the 1860s and was quite popular, as were the later book versions.  It's the story of a massive diamond stolen from the head of a Hindu statue by British soldiers which makes its way to England, as well as the three Indian men whose family lineage is to hunt down and return the diamond to its rightful place.  The black sheep uncle who stole the diamond bequeaths it to his niece (either as redemption with his family or revenge, it isn't clear at first).  When the niece receives it on her 21st birthday, it is stolen.  The narrative is long and told from several viewpoints: the head butler of the house, the cousin who transported the diamond, the family lawyer, a distant cousin (and funnily and scathingly portrayed religious zealot who is constantly trying to convert people and then leaving them improving pamphlets when she fails) and a few others.

It's long and it takes a long time to unravel the mystery.  What is cool (and what Dorothy L. Sayers makes a big deal of in her intro) is that you can figure most of it out in the first part when the crime happens.  It does tend to meander and at points I felt the mystery was somewhat artificially drawn out (like the victim daughter refusing to speak to anybody for years about it when if she had just opened up everything would have been resolved way faster).  Nevertheless, the various narrators are all so interesting and enjoyable written that I really didn't mind.  The ending veers into a side story about a half-caste doctor's assistant that is quite moving and cool.  It was nice to read this book at this point in my 50 books journey, because I am so far ahead, I didn't feel the need to rush and was quite happy to jump into 400+ pages of Victorian drama and detection. 

The theft of the diamond is portrayed as a negative action, though it is the undiscipline of the troops that is the problem not the reality of invading some foreign country to take over its resources.  The more I read this summer, the more I am reminded of how fucking basically barbaric British colonialism was, the moreso by how they masked it in legality and codes of ethics.

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