As many reviewers have noted, T.S. Eliot called `The Moonstone' "the first and greatest English detective novel." Is the novel worthy of such praise? We shall see...
The story begins with a brief prologue describing how the famous yellow diamond was captured during a military campaign in India by a British officer in 1799. The action moves quickly to 1848 England, where, according to the British officer's will, the diamond has been given to one of the soldier's young relatives, Rachel Verinder. Yet only hours after the diamond arrives at the Verinder estate, it disappears. Was it stolen by a relative? A servant? And who are these three Indian men who keep hanging around the estate?
`The Moonstone' is told from the point of view of several characters. The first portion of the tale is told by Gabriel Betteredge, house steward of the Verinder estate, who has been working for the family practically his entire life. Although over 200 pages, Betteredge's account holds the reader's interest as he introduces the main players and the crime itself. The next account, by distant Verinder relative Miss Clack, is humorous and somewhat important, but far too long (nearly 100 pages) for its relevance to the story. But after Miss Clack's account, things really take off at breakneck speed.
Readers who latch onto the T.S. Eliot quote expecting a modern detective tale will be sorely disappointed. You aren't going to see anything resembling Jeffrey Deaver, James Patterson, Sue Grafton, or even Mary Higgins Clark. You also won't see Mickey Spillane, Dashiel Hammett, or Raymond Chandler. Nor will you see Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, or Martha Grimes. You won't even see Arthur Conan Doyle. But you WILL see the novel that influenced them all.
You'll also see something else. Something that modern mystery/detective writers have for the most part lost. Characters. Oh sure, modern writers have characters, but for the most part, the reader only learns enough about the character to forward the plot. In our time, plot is King. When `The Moonstone' was published (1868), one of the novel's attractions was its characters. Collins has painted each of these characters so well that the reader feels that they know not only how they look, but their mannerisms, their movements, how they think, and their view of the world they live in. That type of character development is seriously lacking today, not from all writers, but from far too many.
Of course, the down side is that Colllins also took over 500 pages to develop those characters. Is the book too long? For most modern readers, the answer is yes. I believe it all has to do with your expectation. Put modern mystery/detective stories out of your head. Then read `The Moonstone' as you would any other novel. Get lost in the atmosphere and the characters. Immerse yourself. Most of all, enjoy. Reading `The Moonstone' is like eating at a fine restaurant after months of fast food. When it's over, you just want to sit back in your favorite chair and say, "It's nice to know that the finer things are still available." Yes they are. Treat yourself to this gourmet book.