Wilkie Collins Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2171

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...

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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.

The Moonstone

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 see him. He discovers that she has been mortally offended by the assistance that he provided to the police after the theft. He cannot understand this and resolves to unravel the mystery himself.

Only the last third of the book is reserved for his detective efforts. Finally he is able to prove to Rachel that he did indeed, as she believed, steal the moonstone, but that he was at the time in a trance induced by an overdose of laudanum. He is also able to prove who had actually taken the jewel from him in his sleep. Again, love triumphs and the real criminal is punished. Once more, the amateur detective’s role is relatively small, but it is crucial to the resolution of the mystery.

Collins held very definite theories on the art of storytelling. He declared that to make the reader accept the marvelous, the author must give accurate and precise descriptions from everyday life, including the most prosaic details. Only thus could he hope to fix the interest of the reader on things beyond personal experience and to excite suspense. Collins’s gift of observation permitted him to describe minutely and realistically the backgrounds of his characters; his father’s social position as a famous painter enabled him to write with confidence about life in big country houses, while his stint at Lincoln’s Inn and his habit of collecting police reports provided him with a knowledge of life among the less privileged sections of the London population.

In his preface to Basil, Collins points out that since he is writing for people of his own time and about people of his own time, he cannot expect even the slightest error to pass unnoticed. He is irrevocably committed to realism. Later, Collins assured his readers that the legal points of The Woman in White were checked by “a solicitor of great experience” and that the medical issues in Heart and Science (1883) were vouched for by “an eminent London surgeon.”

Collins reserves the right, however, to ask his readers to take some extraordinary events on faith. These are the events that will capture their imagination and induce them to continue the story. This formula, which had been advanced by Pierre Corneille in the seventeenth century in France and was adopted by Charles Dickens, worked so well that Harper’s Monthly was restored to popularity by installments of Armadale (1866). The first edition of The Woman in White sold out in one day in London, and six subsequent editions appeared within six months. It was read, says one biographer, by paperboys and bishops.

Collins’s way of telling a story was unique. He usually had each important character write down his own version of the facts, sticking strictly to what he knew from personal observation or from speeches he had overheard. This system resulted in a variation on the epistolary novel, which had been popular in the eighteenth century but had not been used before in mystery stories. In The Woman in White, the narrators are Walter Hartright, the drawing teacher; Vincent Gilmore, a solicitor; Marian Halcombe, whose diary is reproduced; Frederick Fairlie, owner of Limmeridge House, where a large part of the action takes place; Eliza Michelson, housekeeper at Blackwater Park, where the villain, Fosco, is introduced; Hester Pinhurn, an illiterate servant of Fosco whose testimony is written for her; and a doctor who reports on the supposed Lady Glyde’s death. Nearly all these people provide their testimony at great length and in the language of educated persons; there is very little differentiation of style.

In each narration the reader picks up a clue to the solution of the incredibly complicated and ingenious plot, which contains all the trappings of a modern English detective story: large country estates with lonely pavilions, altered church registers, sleeping draughts, abductions, secret messages, intercepted letters, and an insane asylum. Eventually, all the ends are neatly tied up with the help of several incredible coincidences. For example, Hartright, on a four-day business trip to Paris, happens, on his way to visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame, to see the body of Fosco exposed in the window of the morgue. The tale is so gripping, however, that the enthralled reader takes these unlikely events in stride.

Numerous critics, including Thomas Hardy, have said that Collins is good on plot but weak on characterization. On the whole, this criticism seems just, for the same types recur in novel after novel. Nevertheless, Collins was capable of creating extraordinarily vivid characters; even the servants are real people with real emotions—a departure from most Victorian literature. It is true that his personages are either angels or devils, but they are real. Fosco, for example, is a short, round foreign man, unfailingly polite, fond of his canaries and pet mice, who has cowed his wife into utter subservience, who dominates his host, who is cool and clever and absolutely unscrupulous.

In The Moonstone there is another unforgettable full-length portrait: that of Drusilla Clack. This is a caricature that reminds one of Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, a novel written fifteen years earlier (1852-1853). Miss Clack is a conceited, self-righteous single woman, a dedicated worker in the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society and the British-Ladies’-Servants-Sunday-Sweetheart-Supervision-Society. She is insatiably curious about the lives of others and picks up information and gossip while scattering tracts in any home to which she can gain entry.

Although opinions may vary on Collins’s portrayal of character, there is unanimity in praising him as a storyteller. The public of his time was wildly enthusiastic. Installments of his stories were eagerly awaited when they appeared in serial form in a wide variety of English and North American periodicals; any magazine that carried his short stories was in great demand. Probably the best known of these short stories is “A Terribly Strange Bed,” originally printed in After Dark (1856). It has all the suspense and horror that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe later succeeded in creating in their tales. No wonder audiences in England and across the Atlantic in 1873-1874 flocked to hear Collins read his stories.

All the acclaim that Collins received from the public may have contributed to the decline in quality of his later work. After about 1870, he seemed determined to prove that he was more than an entertainer: He began writing didactic books. Man and Wife (1870) deals with the injustice of the marriage laws of Scotland; The New Magdalen (1873) examined efforts to redeem fallen women; Heart and Science treated the question of vivisection. He had always tried to prove that all forms of vice are self-destructive; he had always made sure that virtue was rewarded; he had often excited sympathy for physical disabilities, for example, with the hearing impaired in Hide and Seek (1854) and the visually disabled girl in Poor Miss Finch: A Novel (1872). His stepped-up efforts to make the world a better place, however, diminished the literary quality of his stories. The general public did not perceive this until well after the turn of the century, but the enthusiasm of critics diminished during the last twenty years of Collins’s life.

Despite the weaknesses of the later novels, Collins’s high place in literary history is assured by The Woman in White and The Moonstone. J. I. M. Stewart, in his introduction to the 1966 Penguin edition of the latter, sums up thus: “No English novel shows a structure and proportions, or contrives a narrative tempo, better adapted to its end: that of lending variety and amplitude to a story the mainspring of which has to be a sustained interest in the elucidation of a single mysterious event.”

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