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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The First Detective Novel

T.S. Eliot referred to The Moonstone as "the first, the longest, and the best of the modern English detective novel." For if Poe invented the mystery short story, Wilkie Collins, a close friend of Charles Dickens, took the genre to the next level, fully developing it in book-length form. Many of the motifs in The Moonstone became standard fare in the classic English mystery: an English country home, the planting of red herrings or false clues that lead readers to suspect the wrong person, exciting plot twists, and more than anything else, a reliance on rationality and careful attention to clues to solve a crime, accompanied by the temptation of supernatural explanations. Yet it is not chance, the supernatural, or even a wild hunch that leads to solving the crime of the stolen moonstone, but a focus on the unraveling of mundane details. In fact, there is no such thing as a meaningless detail in the story, nothing that can be dismissed as a "trifle." As detective Sergeant Cuff states,

in all my experience along the dirtiest ways of this dirty world, I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.

Collins invents a genre that demands readers do what every novelist wishes every reader of every novel would do: be attentive and alert to details and how they might inform—or deceive.


Collins's novel also opened the door to what would become a repeated motif in the English detective novel: exoticism. In The Moonstone, exoticism comes in two forms. The first, one that would be much repeated (such as in Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four) is Orientalism. The "Orient," in this case India, is depicted as a mysterious, tantalizing, irrational Other, home of fabulous jewels like the moonstone that are connected to strange religious "idols," a strange "curse," and mysterious turbaned Indian "priests." Not only is there the mystery of who stole the valuable moonstone, there is the deeper mystery of the mystical "Orient" that arouses curiosity. The surface mystery is solved, but we are left after reading the novel with the sense that there is something else out there that might not be so easily explained.

Yet while Collins captured his readers' interest through dangling the "mysterious East" before them, he (unlike, say, Doyle in The Sign of the Four) resists blaming the crime on his Indian characters. In the end, he indicts his own Victorian British society by showing the criminal to be the sanctimonious Godfrey Ablewhite, the seemingly upstanding but ultimately hypocritical—and criminal—English gentleman.

Exoticism also emerges in the use of somnambulism, Franklin's mysterious capacity to sleepwalk after being given laudanum to combat his insomnia. Repeating the dosage that led Franklin to sleepwalking and taking the moonstone helps solve the mystery but reveals at the same a mysterious world of unconscious impulses beneath the level of conscious awareness.

The Moonstone shows the triumph of patient attentiveness, a key Protestant and bourgeois virtue, while at the same time pointing to a swirling world of exotic mysteriousness that defies rationality.

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