What amazes me about The Moonstone (1868), I mean what is right on the surface, what makes for the shallowest possible blog post, is not just that it is “first and greatest of the English detective novels,” as T. S. Eliot called it, but that it contains so much of what later became identified with detective fiction, “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window,” as Raymond Chandler described the standard detective novel template (“The Simple Art of Murder,” 1950).
Wilkie Collins got it right the first time, good and bad. He created a mold from which thousands of later novels were stamped, a Standard Literature, readymade in one novel.
In The Moonstone, a character uses “Standard Literature” to refer to 18th century books, “all classical works; all (of course) immeasurably superior to anything produced in later times; and all (from my present point of view) possessing the one great merit of enchaining nobody’s interest, and exciting nobody’s brain” (Ezra Jennings, June 25th), a funny joke in context and much funnier given the subsequent history of the detective novel, by which I mean its eventual conquest of English culture, the Golden Age of detective fiction.
Have any of my readers tried an Edgar Wallace novel? He wrote 170 of them, and almost a thousand short stories. Said it took about three days to write one. I have never read him, but that supposed fact stuck with me, as did this one (quoting Wikipedia): “In 1928 it was estimated that one in four books being read in the UK had come from Wallace's pen.” I doubt the precision of the estimate, but not the approximate truth, that the craze for a specific kind of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s dwarfed, in intensity and length, recent fads for teen vampires and dystopias. Add in Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Of course, the interest has never really ended, even if much of the activity has shifted to television. So many of us have such a strong taste for murders.
The Eliot quotation is from “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” written in 1927, so Eliot is right in the thick of things. He is pro-detective novel:
Those who have lived before such terms as “highbrow fiction,” “thrillers” and “detective fiction” were invented realize that melodrama is perennial and must be satisfied. If we cannot get this satisfaction out of what the publishers present as “literature,” then we will read – with less and less pretence of concealment – what we call “thrillers.” But in the golden age of melodramatic fiction there was no such distinction. The best novels were thrilling…
Examples: Bleak House and The Mill on the Floss (!). That pretense is gone now, or has shifted to other kinds of books. I wish readers arguing about so-called “Young Adult” literature would quote Eliot more. He just wants the melodrama to be better, to be more like The Moonstone.
Some other things amaze me about The Moonstone. One amazement per post, maybe.