I have found some fun stuff while being a volunteer shelver at my library. The Moonstone was on the cart to put back, but after reading the blurb that said it was one of the first mysteries (written in 1868), I had to check it out myself.
The first hurdle is the entire setup of the story. We’re supposed to root for the protagonists simply because they’re the protagonists, but if it weren’t for a heaping helping of racism, none of it would have happened. A giant diamond, part of a shrine in India and sacred to the “Hindoo” people, is stolen by some British soldiers. The holy men assigned to guard this Moonstone chase after it, killing a few of the thieves but ultimately failing to recover it. As the Moonstone is passed down in the British family, bad things keep happening, leading to the belief that the stone is cursed.
After a crackpot but security-savvy uncle dies, 17-year-old Rachel inherits the gorgeous but cursed diamond. That same month, three mysterious traveling Indian jugglers are spotted in her village. The day after Rachel flaunts the Moonstone as a brooch on her dress, it disappears from her sitting room. The game is afoot.
Franklin Blake is Rachel’s cousin, suitor, and deliverer of the diamond. He takes it upon himself to facilitate the investigation. The book is written as testimonies from various players: the family butler, another cousin, a detective, Franklin himself, and a local doctor. This is where the story really shines. The different characters have their own voices and quirks, plus their own biases and theories. The butler is a sexist old curmudgeon, fiercely protective of the family he has served all his life. He gets lines like “When she looks pleased, she looks nice. When she looks nice, I chuck her under the chin. It isn’t immorality – it’s only habit” (about a kitchen servant) and thinks it’s obvious the Indians stole the gem, because they’re brown, duh. Rachel’s cousin Miss Clack is a super-religious spinster, sneaking around the house to leave Christian tracts and pamphlets, supposedly to save her relatives’ souls, but actually to increase her eavesdropping opportunities.
This is already way too long, but this book is dense. There are many suspects, many theories, lots of side characters, and some of the testifying characters are hella wordy. I thought the sergeant would be more of a key player, but he retires and runs off to Ireland to grow roses halfway through. I guess the trope of the Great Detective took a while to develop.
The racism and sexism stings, and I always struggle with the whole “but think of when it was written” question. The mystery is engaging, the characters are fun, and there are some clever tricks Collins uses to get around the “but how could that person possibly know what happened in that other person’s story” issues of telling your story through different points of view. It is not a quick read, but I’m glad I read it.
Also, in addition to the butler being casually sexist and dismissive of the female staff, this book is applicable to today’s political climate in other ways. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Miss Clack, rhapsodizing about the glory of converting people to Christianity:
We are above reason; we are above ridicule; we see with nobody’s eyes, we hear with nobody’s ears, we feel with nobody’s hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! We are the only people who are always right.”