The Moonstone is one of my favourite books, combining a proper Victorian melodramatic plot with some very funny narrators, a dollop of social conscience, and one of the first fictional detectives.
The story opens in 1799 at the storming of the Palace of Seringapatam in India. An unscrupulous British officer by the name of John Herncastle murders three men on his way to stealing the fabled gem known as the Moonstone. The stone makes its way back to England where Herncastle manages to keep it hidden away from three Indian brahmins sworn to restore it to its rightful place. When Herncastle dies, he bequeaths the stone to his niece Rachel Verinder. As it’s known to bring bad luck, it’s not clear whether he meant the gift as a peace offering or a curse (he hadn’t spoken to his family in years). Valued at £20,000, it’s certainly an incitement to crime.
The stone is presented to Rachel on her birthday, and she wears it to her party before putting it safely in her top drawer for the night. Big surprise next morning: the Moonstone is gone!
The Moonstone‘s gimmick is that is written in several narrative voices. The idea is that the story will be written by the witnesses to the various events in the history of the Moonstone. When their accounts are brought together, they will reveal the story in the way it appeared to unfold at the time.
The narrator for the entire First Period (which covers the events leading up to the disappearance of the gem and the immediate investigations led by famous detective Sergeant Cuff) is Gabriel Betteredge. Gabriel is an elderly and idiosyncratic family retainer in the service of Rachel’s mother Lady Verinder. Gabriel is a wonderful character, who knows his own mind and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Here he is on his marriage:
Selina, being a single woman, made me pay so much a week for her board and services. Selina, being my wife, couldn’t charge for her board, and would have to give me her services for nothing. That was the point of view I looked at it from. Economy—with a dash of love. I put it to my mistress, as in duty bound, just as I had put it to myself.
‘I have been turning Selina Goby over in my mind,” I said, “and I think, my lady, it will be cheaper to marry her than to keep her.’
Gabriel watches events with a mix of deep concern for the Verinder family and a growing ‘detective fever’, which causes him to get involved in the investigation despite his own unwillingness to endanger the Verinders.
Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head? I call it the detective-fever.
There is a lot of suspicious behaviour before and after the disappearance of the stone. Three mysterious Indian jugglers appear at the Verinder’s front door on the day the stone arrives, and leave the area suddenly when it vanishes. Rachel Verinder obviously knows something but isn’t telling, and she suddenly breaks off her growing attachment to her cousin Franklin Blake. A servant called Rosanna Spearman, an ex-criminal, keeps wanting to say things to Mr Franklin and then losing her nerve. The initial searches reveal some wet paint in Rachel’s room has smeared onto somebody’s clothing, but the clothing cannot be found.
The famous Sergeant Cuff is called in to resolve matters.
… a grizzled, elderly man, so miserably lean that he looked as if he had not got an ounce of flesh on his bones in any part of him. He was dressed all in decent black, with a white cravat round his neck. His face was as sharp as a hatchet, and the skin of it was as yellow and dry and withered as an autumn leaf. His eyes, of a steely light grey, had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself. His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy; his long lanky fingers were hooked like claws. He might have been a parson, or an undertaker—or anything else you like, except what he really was.
Cuff is the obvious ancestor of all eccentric detectives with peculiar hobbies. His true interest is roses, and in his spare moments at the house seeks out the gardener to pursue an obscure controversy about the cultivation of the dog-rose (for the record, it turns out that the Sergeant is right).
Cuff may be a brilliant detective, but in this case he is up against an insoluble problem. Rachel obviously knows something, but it wouldn’t be polite to ask her outright because she is simply too lovely, apparently. He suspects her of some involvement but can’t pin it down. This is a little exasperating, and to be honest I think they should just kick Rachel off her pedestal, but there it is. The reason of course is that Cuff is working for the Verinders not for the authorities, and so has to be circumspect.
And so Gabriel’s story ends with nothing resolved. The Verinders leave their home for London. Mr Franklin leaves the country. Sergeant Cuff goes back to Scotland Yard. And the story continues in the Second Period…