Wilkie Collins was responsible for turning the early nineteenth century “sensation story” of mystery and imagination into the detective novel. In his own sensation story, Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852), it is possible to see the characteristics that were to mark his famous mystery novels; in fact, everything is there except the detective. There is the righteous young man who falls deeply in love with a beautiful girl who proves to be utterly unworthy of him—not because she is a tradesman’s daughter (and this was a surprising innovation) but because of her sexual immorality; there is the young man’s adoring sister, his stern father, and the memory of a devoted mother; there is an inscrutable, irredeemable villain, this one named Mannion, a man who has vowed vengeance against the righteous young man because the latter’s father had condemned his father to be hanged.
There are scenes of life in mansions and in cottages and vivid descriptions of nature. Here, the vivid pictures are of the coast of Cornwall and surely show the influence of Collins’s father, the painter. There is a detailed manuscript, like the later diaries, and lengthy letters from various characters. Finally, there is the happy ending with the villain dead, the mystery exposed, and all the good people living happily ever after. All these elements, with Collins’s marvelous skill at narrative construction, were carried over into the detective novels, where the amateur detective was added.
The Woman in White
The detective in The Woman in White is Walter Hartright. His name is significant: His heart is in the right place. He meets the beautiful Laura, for whom he would soon be glad to sacrifice his life, when he comes to Limmeridge House, the Fairlie estate, as drawing master for her and her half sister, Marian Halcombe. The sensible sister, who worships Laura, soon surmises that Laura returns his love. Because her sister is about to be married to Sir Percival Glyde, in accordance with her dead father’s last wishes, Marian persuades Hartright to depart.
Before he leaves, Hartright tells Marian about an encounter with a woman in white that had taken place on the eve of his departure from London. While walking alone across the heath after midnight, he had met a young woman, dressed entirely in white, who asked for his help in getting to London. The young lady supplied no information about herself except that she wished to see Limmeridge House again and that she was devoted to the memory of Mrs. Fairlie. After reaching the outskirts of London and gallantly putting her into a cab, Hartright was startled by the arrival of a chaise containing two men. One of them told a police officer that they were trying to catch a woman in white who had escaped from his asylum.
Marian is intrigued by Hartright’s story and discovers in one of her mother’s old letters a reference to a child named Anne Catherick who had promised to dress thenceforth only in white and who strongly resembled Laura.
When Laura receives an anonymous letter warning her against her future husband, Hartright begins his detective work. By chance, he finds Anne Catherick, whom he at once recognizes as the woman in white whom he had met at night on the heath. Now she is wiping Mrs. Fairlie’s gravestone with her handkerchief. He makes her admit that she had written the warning letter, and he deduces that it was Sir Percival who had caused her to be shut up in the asylum. The next day, the detective leaves Limmeridge House, presumably forever.
After about ten months, Walter Hartright, having narrowly escaped death three times, returns to England and learns of Lady Glyde’s death. The fact that the three narrow escapes are mentioned in as many lines shows how much Collins resisted including violence in his books. A good third of the book, then, is given over to events that take place during the detective’s absence.
Hartright decides to seek comfort at the tomb of Laura—where, to his utter surprise, he encounters Marian Halcombe and Laura herself. He arranges for the two women to live with him as his sisters in a humble London lodging while he sets about proving that it is Anne Catherick, not Laura, who is buried beside Mrs. Fairlie. This is where his detective work really begins—about two-thirds of the way through the book. From this point onward, his efforts are directed toward restoring Laura to her inheritance. Extensive and clever investigations bring about a happy ending. Clearly, the emphasis is still on mystery rather than detection.
In The Moonstone, the amateur detective Franklin Blake, like Hartright, arrives on the scene at the beginning of the book and falls in love with the heroine, in this case Rachel Verinder. He brings with him a fateful gem, which disappears a few nights later, after a dinner party celebrating Rachel’s birthday. A superintendent of police and a Sergeant Cuff, neither of whom would be out of place in a twentieth century detective tale, make no progress in their investigations and are inexplicably dismissed. Rachel rebuffs Blake, and he goes abroad to try to forget her. Eventually, the death of his father brings him back to England, where Rachel steadfastly declines to...
(The entire section is 2171 words.)