Another thing that amazes me about The Moonstone is that Wilkie Collins never wrote a sequel or prequel reusing the professional detective, Sergeant Cuff, who is a fine invention and became the prototype for legions. It is not like Collins was above hackwork. Sergeant Cuff is the perfect professional, yet cares more about roses than crime; he is unerringly observant and a fine intuitive psychologist, but not infallible; he quirkily whistles “The Last Rose of Summer” when in deep cogitation. “I suppose it [the tune] fitted in somehow with his character” says one of the narrators (Ch. 12), true by definition, and a good tip for future writers – just substitute a violin for the roses and “little grey cells” for the whistling.
Sherlock Holmes is a reasonably original creation, but he is also in some part just Sergeant Cuff with the ratiocination of Poe’s Dupin stirred in. That narrator mentioned above acts as Watson. Cuff even has a single Baker Street Irregular. A modern reader, who has seen a million of ‘em, might well find Cuff too familiar.
The result is that one central aspect of the modern detective novel, the long series of cases, was not the invention of Wilkie Collins. I wonder why not. But then I don’t understand why it took writers similarly long to imitate Poe’s detective Dupin, who did appear in three short stories. I believe French writers were the leaders here. Perhaps some credit should go to Dumas and his Musketeer adventures. Now I am just blowing smoke. Has anybody read – maybe I will ask this question every post – any of the Monsieur Lecoq novels by Émile Gaboriau? They were written around the same time as The Moonstone and have recurring detectives.
Wilkie Collins is, of course, not writing a detective novel. Any such label is retrospective. How curious, then, that he also created or experienced one of the main problems with mysteries and brushed against another. Rohan Maitzen clearly hits them both in a single paragraph in a 2008 post about her Mystery and Detective Fiction class.
The first is the “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” problem, named after the Edmund Wilson essay criticizing the mystery genre, a defect that afflicts most of the best mysteries. The solution to almost all detective stories is arbitrary, that is the fundamental problem, and thus: who cares? A skillful writer maintains suspense by keeping alive for as long as possible multiple solutions to the mystery, the possibility that any of those people in the drawing room really could be the killer, but once we learn that one particular character is the killer it is often a disappointment. The destabilized world is more interesting than the one that is restored to order. Maybe I should call this the “Murder on the Orient Express” problem since Christie’s novel offers a parodic solution.
The Moonstone is about a theft, not a murder, but the point is the same. As Collins moves toward the end of the novel, he has to spend his time ruling out the more interesting, surprising, or disturbing solutions.
Since the action is not a murder, Collins avoids the great ethical problem with so many mysteries, the trivialization of a horrifying crime – please see Maitzen’s post – but he nevertheless does not avoid it completely. Gooseberry is Cuff’s boy assistant:
“Robbery!” whispered the boy, pointing, in high delight, to the empty box.
“You were told to wait down-stairs,” I said. “Go away!”
“And Murder!” added Gooseberry, pointing, with a keener relish still, to the man on the bed.
There was something so hideous in the boy's enjoyment of the horror of the scene, that I took him by the two shoulders and put him out of the room. (Fifth Narrative, Ch. 1)
Collins was a prophet. He knew us, many of us – me.