The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

118250-L  The Moonstone, a fabulous diamond, is looted from a temple in India by a British army officer in 1799. Three Hindu priests want it back – and they will stop at nothing: murder, travel to Yorkshire, pretend to be jugglers, bide their time, you name it. Half a century later and the jewel is given to Rachel Verinder as her inheritance. And on the night of her birthday at the rackety family pile on the wild North Yorkshire coast…it disappears. So who stole it? Where is it? Why does everyone appear to be hiding something? The plot is marginally less bonkers than Collins’ earlier The Woman In White, which featured identical twins, staggering coincidences, secret societies and someone being wrongly committed to an asylum; here you only have mild coincidences, experiments with mind-expanding drugs and a lovelorn servant ending her life in quicksand – which is, admittedly, more than enough to be going on with. Collins has sharpened up: he doesn’t make the villain write out a confession in long-hand to tie up the loose ends this time, and the intricate police procedural is one reason why this ‘sensation’ novel has endured for a century and a half. The received wisdom is that the author virtually invented detective fiction with The Moonstone. He may certainly be thanked for the fact that every crime solver since has had to have an odd quirk or two. Eccentric Sergeant Cuff notices everything, whistles a lot, and would really prefer to be growing roses. The puzzles pile up: why is Miss Rachel behaving so oddly? Why has her favourite Franklin Blake been rejected? What exactly is the whiter-than-white Godfrey Ablewhite’s game? Should we worry about the touchy doctor’s fever? The story unfolds in a series of first-person narratives from the key – and not so key – characters: among them are Blake himself, faithful servant Betteredge and Christian fundamentalist Miss Clack, as uncharitable, self-obsessed and funny character as it is possible to imagine, prone to leaving religious tracts hidden under cushions in people’s houses, warning them about the influence of Satan. The pages keep turning…and when it comes to solving the crime, as every amateur sleuth knows, it’s usually a good idea to follow the money.

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