This first-ever English detective novel was born of a marriage between the English sensation novel and the English comic novel. Sensationalistic elements lie thick on the ground, certainly. There’s the midnight theft of the eponymous jewel (a lustrous diamond, stolen years earlier from a statue of Vishnu in his incarnation as the Hindu moon god). There’s the strange appearance in the Yorkshire countryside of a trio of Brahmins who have pledged to recover the Moonstone by any means necessary. There’s the use of opium for purposes that are by turns criminal, medicinal, and experimental. The spirit of comedy, enhanced by Collins’s deployment of multiple narrators, is equally prominent. It finds expression in the beneficent presence of Gabriel Betteredge, one of the great butlers in world literature; in the satirically absurd presence of Drusilla Clack, a religious fanatic whose poverty of spirit matches the poverty of her purse; and in the mutually contentious presences of Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder, a charming young pair whose romantic ups and downs mark the rhythm of this great saga. Collins, moreover, makes room within that saga for pathos and for social criticism—witness the tale of the servant girl Roseanna Spearman, who falls tragically in love with one of her “betters,” and the story of Ezra Jennings, a mysterious half-breed whose sacrificial demise points up the cruelties of colonialism.
Yet, despite its high-Victorian scope and shape, the novel carries notable seeds of modernity. Collins writes in a style that’s ornate by the standard of today, but there’s a springy freshness to it overall. A more specifically modern feature is the presence of Sergeant Cuff of the Detective Force, Scotland Yard. Cuff appears on the scene after the Moonstone disappears from Rachel Verinder’s sitting room, and his deductions from the clue of a smear on a painted door prefigure the sleuthing feats of his more illustrious fictional descendants. Able but not infallible, Cuff goes off-track in his suspicions, and thus it devolves to Blake and Jennings and others to find out what happened to the jewel. (Although this classic work lays down numerous tropes that ultimately became central to the murder-mystery genre, it doesn’t actually fit into that category. A lone murder occurs late in the proceedings, but no mystery attaches to the killing. The plot, hinging as it does on the quest for an elusive object of desire, is an early example of a MacGuffin-driven story line.) One after another, these characters happily succumb to “detective fever,” as Cuff calls it. That quality—that need to know, that eagerness to subject the world to discovery and explanation—seems quite modern as well.