Monday, March 9, 2009
Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone nearly drove me crazy,
Originally written to be serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, again and again the story sets up a proposition and then puts it off. It entices you with the clue and then puts off your finding out.
To give just one example:
We know the doctor's memory has a lot to do with the crime's solution, but the doctor has long been ill. Mr. Franklin Blake visits with the doctor, as the doctor requested him to do in a letter. Over and over again several times, Blake almost gets the doctor to remember what the doctor wants to say, and then the doctor forgets again. Finally, the doctor's assistant, after long explanations and enticements, reveals the the key items Blake needs to know. And the story goes from there.
The frustrating thing is that the reader really wants to know what the memory is. And there is no reason, aside from the prolonged (very prolonged!) suspense, to put the answer off.
If you are writing a serial, what better way to keep the reader reading? But nowadays that kind of thing just drives a reader like me crazy.
In other words, what we have here is a Victorian melodrama which also happens to be one of the classics of early mystery literature.
The Moonstone is a melodrama in so many ways. It involves frustrated love. The mystery keeps the lovers apart, and solving the mystery is the only way to get them together.
Most scenes bring things to the edge in a melodramatic way and then, when you get to the next scene, back off. In that regard, the approach reminds me of the Batman serials at some B-movies in the 1940's and 1950's. The current episode always ended with Batman hanging off the edge of a cliff.
And the most unexpected, seemingly impossible thing, is what is most likely to happen.
Still, the book has humor, again prolonged. Miss Clack spreads her Christian tracts around and makes a fool of herself.
And the book has interesting techniques. It is purportedly a series of manuscripts written by various characters in the story, each telling what that person has seen or heard. Only what he or she has seen or heard. Then the writer has to quit writing.
Rosanna Spearman was an especially interesting character to me. Sergeant Cuff is neat and clever, maybe the earliest detective who also has a fanatical interest in flowers (this time, roses).
There is a backstory worked out in the novel in much the way those things often happen in modern novels. And the book is sensational enough (by 1868 standards) to have been a potboiling bestseller.
If I hadn't been trying to read the mystery classics, would I have read the book? Not all of it. I would have skimmed large parts of it. But can I understand how young ladies in the late 1860's would have hung on every word? You bet I can.
So what I think we have here is a good book, really, but not a book which I would read without a lot of skipping.
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