Wilkie Collins is the father of modern English mystery fiction. In his own time, his tales were called “sensation stories.” He was the first to broaden the genre to the proportions of a novel and to choose familiar settings with ordinary people who behave rationally, and he was also the first to insist on scientific exactitude and rigorously accurate detail.
Collins was one of the most popular authors of his day, reaching a wider circle of readers in England and the United States than any author except Charles Dickens. Many of his books were translated for a highly appreciative French public. Although Collins claimed that he wrote for the common man, in his heyday critics classed him with Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë.
Now only two of Collins’s twenty-two novels are considered masterpieces: The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). They have been highly praised by such discriminating critics as Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, T. S. Eliot, and Dorothy L. Sayers (who felt so much indebted to Collins that she embarked on a biography of him, a project that E. R. Gregory completed after Sayers’s death). It is safe to say that without Wilkie Collins, the modern English detective story could never have achieved its present level.