T. S. Eliot claimed that “The Moonstone is the first, longest, and best of English detective novels,” and his praise has been repeated so often as almost to have become a commonplace. This praise, however, if not precisely faint, may yet be perceived as limited, since detective novels are widely regarded as light reading.
Moreover, praise of The Moonstone as a detective novel pays tribute to what in Wilkie Collins is both a strength and a weakness. It is commonly believed that detective fiction stands or falls on the coherence and ingenuity of its plot. From the beginning, critics recognized Collins’s gifts as a constructor of plots, but they often saw in his narratives a mechanical, manipulative quality they thought limited, if indeed it did not destroy, the human interest of his work.
Critical interest in Collins grew, however, as literature began to be less stringently divided into such categories as serious and popular, which would in any case have had little meaning for Collins or his great friend Charles Dickens. A renewed appreciation of Collins’s plot constructions was accompanied by growing recognition of how much there is in The Moonstone besides plot and by the acknowledgment of Collins’s achievement in integrating various elements to produce a whole that is both unified and vital.
To begin with, it is no small accomplishment to sustain the readers’ interest in the whereabouts of a missing diamond for the entire not inconsiderable length of the novel. That the mystery of the diamond is made to bear on a romantic plot involving Rachel Verinder and Franklin Blake increases the level of narrative complexity. That Collins brings both of these narrative lines of development to resolution in the same moment of discovery is an admirable feat of craft. In fact, Collins’s technical mastery, although dazzling in itself, accounts for only part of the satisfaction the novel offers its readers. The focus on the diamond means that readers are eager to reach the denouement and learn what has become of the stone, but it is the author’s triumph that the readers’ eagerness does...
(The entire section is 880 words.)