Wilkie Collins was an English novelist writing in the mid 1800s. He wrote a lot of novels, but today, he's most famous for two: The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In these books, Wilkie Collins developed a new way of writing suspenseful novels: instead of having a central narrator who tells the story, Collins composed his novels as a series of first-person narratives, so the point of view in the novels is always changing. The Moonstone is about the disappearance of a precious diamond called "the Moonstone," and the novel is a collection of eyewitness accounts by different characters who know something about its disappearance. The idea was for the novel itself to be like a collection of evidence so that the readers could be put in the position of the detective (or even a jury!).
A lot of folks have claimed that The Moonstone is the first English detective novel. That may or may not be true, but it's certainly true that Collins's novel deserves a place in literary history for the impact it had on later writers. By the time Collins published The Moonstone in 1868, he had already published several popular novels, so he was pretty well known.
He was also good friends with the older, more established author Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens helped Collins out by taking him under his wing and helping to establish him as an author. Dickens was the editor of a couple of different literary journals, and he published The Moonstone for Collins in 1868 in the magazine All the Year Round. Like most of Dickens's novels (and like many novels of the period), The Moonstone was published in serial form. So, like a TV show today, the novel was broken into different episodes and published a piece at a time in the magazine.
People were hooked on the story from the beginning. You know the kind of anticipation and hype about popular TV shows like Lost or even reality shows like American Idol? Or the way people were lining up at bookstores for the new Harry Potter and Twilight books? It was the same way for each episode of The Moonstone as it came out. Members of every social class enjoyed it – servants were reading it in the kitchen while their masters and mistresses were reading it upstairs in the drawing room. People made bets about where the stolen Moonstone would be found in the end.
Why Should I Care?
T.S. Eliot, the famous poet, once called The Moonstone "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels." But the cool thing about The Moonstone isn't just the presence of a professional detective as a character – it's the way that the novel is structured. Because it's a collection of first-person narratives and "original" documents, reading it is like going through a pile of evidence. We, the readers, get to play detective. Like the character Betteredge, we might become infected with "detective fever" and find it impossible to stop reading.
Besides putting us in the odd position of detective, judge, and jury, The Moonstone also provides us with some interesting glimpses into everyday life in the mid-nineteenth century. Critics like to point to The Moonstone for evidence of how everyday English people thought of India during the nineteenth century.
So whether you're interested in the history of British colonialism in India, or just like a good mystery, you'll love The Moonstone. And be sure you've got a good stretch of time to finish reading this, because once you get started, you're likely to come down with a case of detective fever, and you're not going to want to put it down.