I had previously enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ A Woman in White and was surprised at their difference in tone. Woman in White is straight drama. The first fourth of Moonstone, however, is written from the tongue-in-cheek perspective of the Verinder’s trusted family servant, Gabriel Betteredge. His commentary is so humorous that I initially had a hard time taking the book seriously. His self-deprecating witticisms and his devotion to the book Robinson Crusoe (as a cure for every ailment) had me chuckling throughout.
The moonstone is a diamond with a troubled history. Stolen from a hindu temple in India it has been smuggled to England where it is given to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday. The uncle who willed it to her had a grudge against the family and some believed that he willed it to her out of spite because of the curse connected with it. The diamond is stolen the night of the birthday party. Suspicion points to the servants, those who attended the party (including Miss Verinder herself), and to the three mysterious men from India who have been snooping around the neighborhood.
Add to that a former thief who works at the house as a servant, a self-righteous old biddy who hands out tracts, the rose-loving Sergeant Cuff, Miss Verinder’s two suitors, the ostracized Ezra Jennings and Gooseberry the messenger boy, and you have quite a cast of characters. You'll never guess who did it!
May I make a confession here? Although I liked Moonstone, I did not think it was the best detective tale in the world. Granted, it was one of the first detective novels ever written and Chesterton didn’t have much with which to compare it. I thought the writing was good, but not terrific, and that the novel took way too long to reach the denouement (after which it rambled on a bit more). Having just read Josephine Tey, I was homesick for her fine, tight prose.
Still, I’m glad I got to read the “granddaddy” of all detective novels.