the most enjoyable novel of the 1800s

Having just finished Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), I want to report that you cannot have any more fun reading a novel from that century. (Which is saying a lot.) It’s a detective story with some initial elements that later become commonplace: a country house party with eccentric guests, a missing diamond, incompetent local constables, a lovely young lady, a likable young man, and a genius of a detective who has an absorbing hobby. (“The Great Cuff” cares for roses as Holmes loves his violin and Nero Wolfe, his orchids). All this is described by a Watson-like narrator who has trustworthy motives but less perception than the reader.

But then, since Collins is a fount of plot ideas rather than a derivative writer, the story veers away from what will later become the formula of a drawing room detective story. We are soon reading text by other narrators and following the course of a troubled love story. By the time we’re done, we’ve been to India, heard the lamentable story of man from the colonies whose life is ruined by racist prejudice as well as disease and scandal, and observed a scientific experiment meant to reveal the location of the lost Moonstone.

It is all very suspenseful, and suspense is an explicit topic of the narration. (The experiment at the end, in particular, requires creating suspense for several onlookers.) All this was grist for my sister’s mill. In The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt, Caroline Levine argues that Victorian novelists developed new techniques for creating suspense. This was not just a trick or a way of providing entertainment and pleasure. Rather, they put their readers through an experience of suspending judgment and awaiting evidence that was reminiscent of science and that had a similar moral purpose. In the Moonstone, as she notes, the suspense catches the attention of onlookers who have been confused by prejudice and makes them reach the moral truth.

In passing, she explains that Collins was one of the first novelists to complain that reviews gave away too much plot. The same writer who more or less invented the detective novel was also an early critic of “spoilers.” Strangely enough, the back cover of my copy of the Moonstone (Barnes & Noble Classics, 1993) gives away a major event that only occurs on page 447 of a 472-page novel. It was probably the worst spoiler that I have ever seen on a book cover, but fortunately I came to believe it was an outright error and so was pleasurably surprised when the event actually occurred.