I studied Dickens at A-level and even now I cannot quite rid myself of the suspicion that the Inimitable is wordy and self-important. I agree that he can’t be beaten for the vibrancy of his character sketches, but for mastery of plot and sheer page-turning entertainment, give me his old friend Wilkie Collins. For various reasons, Collins has never really emerged from the shadow of Dickens, so even today he struggles to find a place on any school syllabus. Denied access to him in my student years, I came to him somewhat later through an interest in thriller writers.
T. S. Eliot described Collins’s masterpiece The Moonstone (1868) as ‘the first and greatest English detective novel’. Sure enough, that book establishes many of the ground rules of detective fiction as it evolved over the next century – the country-house setting, the Scotland Yard sleuth dispatched from London, the locked room, and so on. It does this with an understated humour, exhibited, for example, in the self-serving machinations of Drusilla Clack, the pious niece of Lady Verinder, in whose house the eponymous gem is apparently stolen. Collins has considerable fun at the expense of Miss Clack, who latches on to her elderly aunt, making great play of distributing religious tracts, while all the time professing the obvious lie that she has ‘not the slightest pecuniary interest in Lady Verinder’s Will’. But what grabbed me was the novel’s modernity. This is not simply because of its fresh, uncomplicated style of writing. It has more to do with the frame of reference that permeates its pages.
I had expected it would promote the empirical rationality of the times in which it was published, but there is no sense of scientific triumphalism; the central crime isn’t solved by the obvious candidate, the pleasant, plodding and essentially logical professional Sergeant Cuff, but by Ezra Jennings, the medical assistant with the ‘dreamy eyes’ and ‘gypsy complexion’
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