While You Were Sleeping
on experimentation and the first modern detective novel
Someone has stolen your Moonstone. (Gasp!) It’s your 18th birthday and the worst of your uncles has gifted you plunder from his literal colonial pillaging of India. The good news is that he’s dead, the old war criminal, and you adore the Moonstone. Your name is Rachel Verinder and while you’re already very rich, your neckline can finally prove it. You’re living in Victorian England and you’re in love with one of your cousins. In fact, the only people trying to marry you are cousins, but in an elegant and Downton Abbey-type way, and not like in Alabama. You’ve never even heard of Alabama, only hemophilia.
Spoiler: the cousin you love, you will marry, but only after he and a cast of friends and strangers spend 700 pages explaining why he appeared in your bedroom in his nightgown on the evening of your 18th birthday, his eyes glistening with a desire that the day had hidden, and proceeded to steal, again, your precious gem.1
This is the outline of The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, and I have no idea if you’ve heard of it. Probably, is my guess. It’s a staple of the English literary canon, one of those old books that’s widely studied because it was once widely read and in many parts of the lay-literary world it’s still widely read. G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and probably other people who didn’t die 70 years ago, all think it’s one of, if not the, greatest English detective novel. Most people who care about this kind of thing usually call it the first modern detective novel, the one which invented or cemented any number of now-standard tropes (more on those in a minute).
I recently listened to a great recording of The Moonstone during my commute. Like so many Victorian novels, it spends half its dinner setting the table, but once the food arrives, it delights. At minimum, Collins wrings his various narrators for all they’re worth—there’s Miss Clack, for example, a spinster who becomes embroiled in the mystery because she can’t stop hiding religious pamphlets in her distant family’s various mansions—and when the drama lags, the characters still entertain.
When I started the book, I had a pet theory circulating in the back of my mind that I thought might be relevant. For a while now I’ve been pondering the way in which various art forms, say from 1500 until the present, all hit an extreme of experimentation that later generations only manage to popularize. I’m too dumb to say this in a shorter way, or to have enough examples to make the theory really compelling, but the basic idea is that we conceive of film or music or novels as advancing along a certain linear creative trajectory. We start with realism and then WWI happens and *poof* modernism invents fragmentation. Forget Don Quixote’s labyrinth of meta-joking and nonlinear storytelling, until there was Joyce, there was only Dickens.
In reality, of course, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and a bunch of other books I haven’t read all anticipated, or pre-empted, their literary grandchildren. They did autofiction and metafiction and whatever it is that Herman Melville did when he broke all literary molds with Moby-Dick. I’m not saying there’s nothing new under the sun, per se, but seriously: Moby-Dick anticipates not only War and Peace’s historical essays, but the documentary flourishes of W.G. Sebald, and a bunch of other highfalutin’ gimmicks that we think of as being very new. The book was published in 1851, damn it, and reads like a how-to for a movement (Modernism) that was supposedly invented in the devastation of early 20th-century Europe. Literary schools and trends are important forces, in my opinion, but they are usually not the first expression of their own obsessions.
I know I’m the only one who cares about this theory, but I’m also right!
As for The Moonstone, it furthers my theory along an axis I wasn’t expecting. I have no idea why T.S. Eliot, in particular, insisted that Wilke Collins and not Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story, but I think the truth of that opinion goes beyond Collins’s standardizing of so many tropes. The Moonstone features the brilliant detective who uses small clues to solve big confusions, red herrings upon red herrings, a final twist that unmasks an unlikely perpetrator, and more, but what feels most modern about The Moonstone is the way in which it uses mystery as a setting for its various psychological portraits.
I’m not a detective-novel expert, but I’ve read a decent amount of American noir—Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Macdonald, Woodrell—and I’ve read various British mysteries (or as I call it, “mostly P.D. James”). As with any other artform, it’d be easy to outline a neat, chronological trajectory of creativity for the detective novel:
plot for plot’s sake (penny dreadfuls, 1920s Golden Age puzzles)
plot as social commentary (innovations like Red Harvest or Gaudy Night)
plot for character’s sake (everyone from P.D. James to Donna Tarrt to Denis Johnson)
Somehow, The Moonstone more or less embodies this artificial range of detective novels at the very moment it helps create the detective novel (it was published in 1868). It deploys the “whodunit” plot which has created more paperback addicts that any other literary device, then parodies that device, then transposes that device from a question of mystery to a question of humanity, going so far as to dismiss the concrete conundrum in favor of the fallout of said mystery being solved. Not so fast, though, because the mystery is *still* solved in a dramatic, climactic reveal. In other words, Dorothy Sayers, Ross Macdonald, and Donna Tartt are all squeezed between Agatha Christie bookends, and all before any of them existed.
My point, though, is that The Moonstone is one of the best detective novels for the same reason as all the other great detective novels: it keeps the mystery one step ahead of the reader. Who did it, why did they do it, why am I capable of doing it, and what will we all do now? The energy of the mystery, the propulsion of its foreshadowing and puzzle-making, is always one step further into the dark, the hallway of the text always longer than you thought when you woke, the footsteps sometimes clear and sometimes muffled, until eventually you hear only yourself, the satisfaction of solving the puzzle having left you no closer to a warm room, to the candles waiting for the final breath of sleep, to a slumber that can only feel like a small, hopeful oblivion.
What can I say, it’s a fun book!
. . . To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
Ukraine is still being burned. It can’t be the only thing most people not in Ukraine think about—for practical reasons alone—but it’s still on my mind. God have mercy. Christ have mercy.
I love you all.
I was told this part of the twist before I first read The Moonstone, and let me assure you, it doesn’t ruin anything. Let me also assure that I will regularly spoil books that came out 150 years ago without compunction.