Tuesday, June 25, 2013

victorian mysteries

At the beginning of the year I said that my challenge this year was to read pre-20th century books. So far, this reading challenge has not really gotten off the ground, but recently I did manage to read something published before 1900, so I thought I would count it and blog about it here. The book that kick-started my challenge was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a book I have heard of often but never read. A short summary: during the wars in India, a British soldier steals a fabulous diamond from a Hindu temple. This British soldier being something of a disreputable type (see stealing Indian diamonds and murdering their guards) he is cut off from the rest of his family, but leaves the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, in his will as a birthday present. Whether this is an act of reconciliation or revenge is unclear to the family, seeing that the diamond is said to come with 3 Indian assassins set on reclaiming it. When the diamond goes missing from Rachel's room the night after her birthday all the members of her house try to reclaim it, but they are also suspects- her two cousins both vying for her hand, the maid with a shady past, potentially even the neighbourhood doctor, her mother, and Rachel herself. It's hard to summarise the rest because I don't want to give away the twists and because there are so many points of views and events and misunderstandings that it's difficult to condense it down. That's half the fun of reading a mystery novel, right?

Image From Goodreads
The main appeal of The Moonstone is that it is described as an early prototype of the mystery genre, which I like, and I like the idea of reading books from different stages in the development of the mystery genre. Also, for some reason I thought that Wilkie Collins was a woman, and I was interested in seeing what women were writing in the early days of the mystery novel. But apparently Wilkie Collins was actually a man, so that idea was quashed. 

Still, it's always interesting to read early mysteries- if unpredictable. I read Edgar Allen Poe's Murder on the Rue Morgue a while back (it's often cited as one of the first detective stories and an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes) and it definitely felt like an early example- a bit rough and not quite finished, unsure of how it should pace itself or present its characters. Because of that, I didn't really know how The Moonstone would go, but in the end I found the experience very different to the Murders on the Rue Morgue. Maybe because The Moonstone is also part of the fairly established genre of Victorian sensation, it was published more than 20 years after Poe's story and seems broader in scope than a simple detective story or murder mystery. In fact, in many ways it hardly is a prototype detective story- its about a theft rather than the more common murder, there are multiple narrators and there is no clear 'detective'- the head servant Gabriel Betteredge alternatively helps and hinders the great detective Sergeant Cuff, and proves more consistently helpful to Rachel's cousin, Franklin Blake. It reads very much like a serial, and I think it was originally serialised by Charles Dickens- which tells you a lot abut the way it reads I suppose, with its multiple narrators, cliffhanger chapter endings that read much less impressively when the next chapter follows immediately on and just its sheer length, number of characters and plot turns. 

Still, while The Moonstone in some ways doesn't feel like a detective story, there are many ways in which it does. Much is made of it as a 'locked room' mystery (more like a locked house mystery really), and Wikipedia even goes so far as to list the number of detective story tropes it uses. But what really ties it to other detective stories for me is the introduction- the use of India and a flashback to set the scene and create a sense of mystery and of history as a kind of portent. Reading the first chapter I had an immediate memory of watching an episode of an Agatha Christie mystery, I think a Miss Marple. It's hard to trace since I can't remember which one it was, but basically this contains a flashback to the theft of a diamond in India which was the catalyst for the murders. I think this turns up again in G.K. Chesterton somewhere (really I know I should look this up) and an Indian treasure is involved in at least one Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of the Four (I have a fairly bad memory for plots and have done only a little Wikipedia searching, but I would be interested in knowing how many Indian treasures feature in Golden Age detective stories. If you can think of one, please mention it in the comments!). A while ago I read a book written by 'The Detection Club', The Floating Admiral, a mystery with each chapter written by a different author, including such names as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The prologue, written by G.K. Chesterton, is set over an altercation in Hong Kong. I've been focusing on India here, but China (and Hong Kong) also features as a backdrop.

Basically, 'the East' is often a source of mystery and danger in detective stories, with events there often belonging to the past, a past that haunts a character (or object). There is a strong Orientalism pervading the genre in the Victorian era, and even beyond into the twentieth century. When translated, as in the 'Blind Banker' episode of BBC's Sherlock, they can be a bit uncomfortable. But it's interesting to me how colonialism is treated in these books. It's quite an uneasy relationship, I feel, and that unease is certainly present in The Moonstone. The Indians of the book are seen as a threat, and no-one seems to seriously consider giving them back the diamond, but the original actions of the uncle are characterised as theft, and murder as well. The English soldiers in the preface are depicted as getting out of hand and behaving badly, but the war itself is not questioned.

Image from Goodeads
What has always fascinated me is that 19th century India and England seem worlds apart- the travel time between them was immense, and the cultural differences too. But my imagination is faulty I think, because as a Colonial power England was very involved in India. Early mystery novels are full of retired Colonels with mysterious pasts from abroad, they range from harmless and dull, to eccentric, to hiding wicked secrets and so on. While I was reading The Moonstone I was also reading a book about the honeymoon in the Victorian period (Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the conjugal by Helena Michie) which included one couple who lived (and honeymooned) in India. I feel like India as a setting in Victorian times was both more familiar and more exotic than it is today. At any rate, I'm sure the average Victorian reader would have had a better grasp of the history that unfolds in the backdrop of these novels than I do.
So to mind the most strikingly typical mystery feature in this book was the colonial background- which you would think would make it quite dated, but in fact it does turn up occasionally even today. I mentioned the new series of Sherlock before, but I also saw this trope recently in a Christopher Fowler novel- Seventy-Seven Clocks *spoilers*. As in The Moonstone, the source of danger in this book was assassins from India targeting a particular family, including, if I remember correctly, the obligatory retired Colonel. In this story, however, it turns out that *ok really massive spoilers now* the Indian assassins are being controlled by a piece of Victorian machinery designed by an Englishman- using intimidation he had set in motion a system to control Indian workers he had influence over, and used this to gain influence over business associates and rivals. Long after his death, the system was still running amok. This book clearly brings a more modern perspective on colonialism to this trope, but it still made me slightly uneasy to read it becuase it is so steeped in this orientalising tradition. For all that, I think that the way this trope presents an unease about hte events of the past, and about the relationship between different countries, is very revealing and still relevant.

There is still a lot more to be said about The Moonstone (I feel like I've actually hardly said anything about it), but I think that will have to do for now- before I get too carried away. Anyway, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it has a fun mystery plot, and partly beause I was reading a Victorian novel at the same time as a book about Victorians, and I felt fairly immersed in the period. That seems like a good approach to me- maybe I'll see what I can find on other literary periods now. One of the perks of working in an academic library is that these sorts of books are always close to hand! If you have any other early mysteries you can recommend, or any other books with a similar plot point please let me know- I'd be interested to see what's out there.