Thursday, August 28, 2014

something so hideous in the boy's enjoyment of the horror of the scene - more Moonstone, character, form, and ethics

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.


  1. There's something about Collins' novels that don't look like detective novels at all; at least I don't remember them like that - just normal novels that happen to have detective elements; he was far more open to other experiences and possibilities than his imitators, and wasn't trying to create a formula. Unfortunately a formula seems to be the main thing they got from him.

  2. 100% agreement - The Moonstone looks like a detective novel because later detective novels copied The Moonstone. It is all an illusion. Collins himself was copying, to the extent that he was copying, Dickens, and his own previous novels.

  3. No I haven't read any Émile Gaboriau yet, but intend to at some point.

    I read a study of M. E Braddon and the author noted Braddon's move towards detective fiction and argued that the origins of detective fiction can be found in Sensation fiction. As a Sensation author, Braddon includes those elements bigamy, false identity, blackmail and guess what.... murder. And once murder has occurred someone has to do something about it...
    Braddon's Henry Dunbar introduces a most wonderful character: the detective Carter, towards the end of the book. I wanted to see a lot more of him.

  4. The protagonist of Lady Audley's Secret certainly looks and quacks like a detective, too. Just like you say - a murder occurs, and someone has to do something, even if he would rather not and is barely competent.

    I'll file away Henry Dunbar - very interesting. It also has a train accident! I am not above enjoying a good train accident.

  5. I have a thing for trains. Braddon's son considered Henry Dunbar one of his mother's best. I read it after LAS and didn't think it came close. There's the definite feeling that characters are being around like chess pieces and if the author stopped that, the book would be about 1/3 shorter. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it, as I did. Sensation fiction and all that.

  6. You could no doubt go through the novel and look at pairings like Cuff and "The Last Rose of Summer"--a person plus the thing that helps them think and that works to deepen thought and make connections. Betteredge and Crusoe. Rosanna and--sad choice--the Shivering Sands.

  7. Ooh, yes, that's right, Rosanna and the Sands.

    Congratulations, by the way, on the launch of Glimmerglass!

    1. Thank you, kind sir!

      Poor Rosanna. Perhaps she is the Last Rose...