Diamonds are Forever
in FT Weekend
In January, exactly 150 years ago, the first instalment of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone was published. It came out in All The Year Round — “A Weekly Journal Conducted By Charles Dickens” — and was well received by readers, who gladly paid 2d to read the latest book “by the author of The Woman in White”, along with the other delights of Dickens’ popular journal.
One of Collins’ characters neatly summarises the plot: “Here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond — bringing after it a conspiracy of living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man.”
It was held for many years that The Moonstone was the first true detective novel. The poet TS Eliot, whose literary tastes were eclectic, was a champion of detective novels, and The Moonstone in particular. He endorsed it with the kind of praise that makes publicists salivate: “The first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels . . . ”
His high opinion of the novel was echoed by the detective fiction writer Dorothy L Sayers, who wrote in her 1944 foreword: “The Moonstone is impeccable . . . What has happened, in fact, is that The Moonstone set the standard, and that it has taken us all this time to recognise it.” They had a point: The Moonstone introduced both an amateur detective and a trained police investigator, pulled off a country-house mystery, and laid a perfect trail of clues and red herrings.
Purists argue that Collins was not really the first to write a full-length detective novel in English, and technically they are correct — Charles Felix published The Notting Hill Mystery in serial form in 1862, but it never exercised the outsize influence that The Moonstone had on subsequent generations of crime fiction writers.
It begins on a rousing note of exotic adventure. “I address these lines — written in India — to my relatives in England,” says the narrator. He is a soldier whose account of the storming of Seringapatam in 1799 explains the history of the diamond known as the Moonstone, stolen after an act of murder witnessed by his cousin.
There is a curse on the jewel, and legend has it that three guardian Hindu priests, whose successors keep a patient eye on the travels of the Moonstone down the centuries, biding their time until it can be restored to its rightful place, adorn the head of a statue of the god Vishnu.
When the Moonstone is bequeathed to Miss Rachel Verinder in 1848, the three Indian descendants see an opportunity to steal the diamond back. Collins apparently wrote the first part with a kitten “galloping over” his shoulders, and the rest of the book in distress — his mother was dying, he was crippled by rheumatic gout, taking high doses of laudanum to combat the pain.
A key character in the novel, Ezra Jennings, probably bi-racial, with “piebald” hair, is an opium user and references Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Parts of The Moonstone have a heightened, nightmarish quality that feels curiously modern. Collins had in mind two famous existing diamonds — the Koh-i-Noor, and also the Orlov diamond.
The latter is supposed to have been stolen in about 1747 by a French soldier who deserted, professed to have converted to Hinduism, and plucked the diamond out from the eye of a deity in the Srirangam temple. Given the heated passions of the post-1857 decade, Collins’ depiction of Indians, and the British in India, is surprisingly even-handed.
He includes a long passage on the looting and excesses of the British army, and while his three enigmatic “Hindoos” are suitably exotic, their mission is presented with sympathy. Eliot complained that The Moonstone had “led to a great deal of bogus Indianism, fakirs and swamis” in crime fiction, but noted, “Collins’ Indians are intelligent and resourceful human beings with perfectly legitimate and comprehensible motives”.
Despite long digressions, slow build-ups and occasional melodramatic flourishes, The Moonstone was nevertheless ahead of its time. Collins presented a country house from the point of view of its staff, who paint an unflattering portrait of the gentry, and he anticipated the troubled politics of colonial cultural artefacts, the question of whether property belonged to the looters or the looted.
In the final section, the “Yellow Diamond” gleams once again in the forehead of the deity. As the narrator writes: “After the lapse of eight centuries, the Moonstone looks forth once more, over the walls of the sacred city in which its story first began . . . You have lost sight of it in England, and . . . you have lost sight of it forever.”
The Moonstone feels surprisingly contemporary, both in its Indian sections, and in its disruptions and invasions of an imaginary, idyllic, secure England.