An English Classic–Detectives and Society

The Moonstone

By Wilkie Collins

Published:  1868

Read:  12/26/2016; Re-read 4/4/2017

The Moonstone was originally published in Charles Dicken’s “All the Year Round”, a weekly magazine, between Jan 4, 1868 and Aug 8, 1868.  In July 1868 it was published in three hardback volumes and in revised form in 1871.  Wilkie adapted it for the stage in 1877.  It’s been the subject of several radio, movie, and television versions, the most recent in 2016.  It earned a place on the Guardian’s 2003 list entitled “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” and its 2013 list “The 100 Best Novels Written in English”.    Fortunately for this reader, a book club to which I belong selected it for part of its 2016-2017 season.

There has been some debate about whether or not The Moonstone invented the English detective novel so I expected to read a (very long) detective novel that wouldn’t provide much discussion material for our club.  On the contrary, I found The Moonstone to be a really wonderful read.  I actually pitied the original readers who had to wait for weekly installment and found myself “binge reading”.  I listened to the book and looked for excuses (ie drive the long route vs the short way) to extend my listening time.  When preparing for our book discussion I ended up re-reading (re-listening) to the whole book again and loved it just as much the second time through.

The Moonstone certainly has a mystery to solve—theft of a valuable gem, just gifted to a young woman from her deceased uncle who obtained it while in a battle in India, while the family’s English country home is filled with birthday well-wishers (providing lots of possible thieves).    A famous detective is hired to investigate the crime after the local police muck things up a bit.   The mystery is eventually solved after several plot lines involving financial issues, marriage proposals and engagement ruptures, and a suicide (among others…) play out.

The book form is interesting.  Telling of the story of the loss and recovery of the Moonstone has been commissioned by Mr Franklin Blake, the cousin who was tasked with delivery of the gem to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday.  Blake requests several persons to record the parts of the story for which “our own personal experience extends, and no farther”.   Thus sets up the progression of narrators and/or their letters:  Gabriel Betteredge, long-time servant to the Verinder household and steward/butler at the time of the story; Miss Clack, niece of the late Sir John Verinder and evangelist; Matthew Bruff, Soliciter and long-time lawyer for the Verinder family; Franklin Blake, nephew of the late Sir John Verinder and cousin and suitor of Rachel Veridner; Ezra Jennings, assistant to the Mr Candy, doctor of the local community; Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective engaged by Lady Verinder to solve the mystery of the theft;   a letter from Mr Candy; and an epilogue from Mr Murthwaite, an adventurer.    With this device we hear the parts of the story with which each narrator has direct knowledge through their varied voices.  Not only do we learn about the particulars of the case, we also learn much about the various layers of society—those “upstairs”, “downstairs”, and professionals serving the community.

The narratives from Gabriel Betteredge are quite delightful.  He wanders a bit and apologizes for this tendency but this reader much enjoyed the wanderings as we learn about the family, servants, and happenings as well as get his views on various aspects of society.  He has a wonderful and dry sense of humor and avid devotion to DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a guide to life.   Wilkie was quite progressive in his thinking and uses Betteredge to convey some of his thinking about the relationship between the various strata of society.

All of the women in The Moonstone are strong and intelligent figures.  Lady Verinder quickly engages her Solicitor upon her husband’s death and constructs a financial structure for her daughter to both support her but more importantly minimize the chance of falling victim to a “gold-digger”.  The arrangement proves an important plot element.  Rachel Verinder knows her mind and protects her secret about the theft even though this choice could block her recovery of the missing gem.  Miss Clack, although a less sympathetic character, has quite strong convictions to which she stays true, working tirelessly to aid all around her to live pure lives and have a sure path to a greater glory after death.  Three additional women, Roseann Spearman, a house servant with a mysterious past, Penelope Betteredge, house servant and daughter of Gabriel, and Lucy Yolland, a local girl with a handicap and friend of Roseann Spearman, play important roles in the story and are presented to us as courageous and strong.

The men in The Moonstone, especially those of the “upstairs” are portrayed as less noble.  One character steals the Moonstone as part of war plunder, setting up the story we are told.  Another character seeks to solve his money problems, caused in part by an inappropriate relationship with a lady, by seeking a marriage only to provide him quick access to capital.  One character has a difficult disease which leads him to turn to opium for respite. Even Mr. Franklin Blake, ultimately a sort of hero of the story, is portrayed as one who has flitted about with limited financial prudence, even borrowing money from the servants.     Only Gabriel Betteredge comes across as fully honest and true, and his moral compass interestingly comes from Robinson Crusoe.

I won’t be surprised if I choose to listen to this book again.  It’s filled with great characters, great narration, a fun mystery, and an interesting look at English society in the mid 1800’s.  I agree that it’s a book to put on a list of classics, regardless of how you define “classic”.

People and politics

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Published 2013

Read 4/2/2017

This book followed Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of connected short stories, Olive Kitteridge and preceded her novel  My Name is Lucy Barton.  Strout returned to novel form for this book and sets the story between Shirley Falls, Maine and New York City.

In this book Strout opens with a prologue in which a woman and her mother talk about people from her hometown, where the mother still resides.  Both women are widowed, the younger one losing her husband the year after her kids left for college.  Their discussion sets up the characters of the novel.  1) Jim Burgess is a  lawyer made famous by his successful defense of a well-known singer accused of paying to have his wife killed, a case followed by the nation.  After the trial, Jim and his Connecticut born wife leave Hartford and Jim does not pursue a political career as expected but rather moves to New York City to work for an expensive law firm and defend white collar criminal cases. 2)  Bob Burgess is Jim’s younger brother, who accidentally killed his father when he was four.  Bob lives in Jim’s shadow in New York City, also as a lawyer.  He is currently divorced from his wife, Pam.  3) Susan Burgess Olsen is  Bob’s twin.  She is the only Burgess who stayed in Shirley Falls.  She  was left by her husband seven years ago when he moved to Sweden .  Susan lives with her 19 year old son, Zach, and an elderly renter.   Zach pulls a prank that lands Shirley falls on the national news.  This problem pulls Jim and Bob back to Shirley Falls.  The woman in the prologue, a writer, decides to write their story.

The conversations between the woman and her mother and their relationship (small town girl moves to NYC and marries someone not well accepted by her family leading to an estrangement that lasts many years) are clearly of interest to Strout.  Strout explores a similar, although not identical, scenario and expands on it in her next novel, My Name is Lucy Barton.

The Burgess Boys covers a lot of ground with themes ranging from trying to leave an unhappy past by moving away, the bond of siblings being strong but relationships not easy, abandonment by a spouse and resulting impact on the spouse and children left behind, PTSD (although not verbalized this way) resulting from a childhood tragedy, guilt associated with secrets kept for decades, feeling “I am living the wrong life”, sexual harassment, and the stresses of children leaving home, among others.  These human themes are considered while the story is told of the prank Susan’s son Zach plays at a Somali mosque which escalates into a civil rights case and potentially a federal hate crime case, thus providing additional themes of small towns dealing with immigrants of a substantially different culture, politicizing of crimes and the impact of this on small town police, prosecutors, and the communities within the small town.

Strout works to tell a number of story lines simultaneously.  In Olive Kitteridge, the separateness of the related short story chapters allowed her to do this very successfully.  In this book, the switches are more jarring at times for this reader.  Strout is very good at peering into real human relationships.  A wonderful quote near the end of the novel:   “You have a family”, Bob said.  “You have a wife who hates you, kids who are furious with you.  A brother and sister who make you insane.  And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now.  That’s called family.”  Zach’s prank and resulting turmoil in the town for many parts of the community reminds us that while we work at living our lives and dealing with our personal issues there is also a broader set of issues and conflicts in the world that are actually not far from our doorstep.   That is jarring too— so maybe Strout has actually hit a tone that reflects the reality in which we live our lives.