top of page


The detective novel has long been a popular genre, but where did its popularity begin? And what defines a detective novel? The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, helps us to answer these questions.

“the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”

T.S. Eliot claimed The Moonstone was “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. He is not alone in praising the novel so highly. Dorothy L Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, both very popular in the genre, also considered it the very finest of detective stories, while P. D. James compliments it at length in her essay ‘Talking About Detective Fiction’.

Arguably, though, The Moonstone wasn’t the first of its kind. William Godwin’s Caleb Williams is a rather well known predecessor, and Edgar Allan Poe had already introduced us to the great detective Auguste Dupin, the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes. And yet it is The Moonstone that many consider set the precedent when it comes the conventions of the genre. Dupin may have come first but he was more at home in the short story whereas The Moonstone established many of the ‘rules’ other detective novels were to follow.

It takes place, for the most part, in the closed setting of an English country house. It has a large cast of characters, or potential suspects if you prefer, many with the motive and opportunity to commit the central crime. It has both a professional detective figure and a more unofficial investigator, each following a number of clues which lead to a satisfying resolution when pieced together in the appropriate order, with various ‘twists’ on the way. “Here,” says Gavin Lambert in The Dangerous Edge, “is the classic detective formula”.

“the cheerful country-house”

Henry James praised The Moonstone for having set its mystery in “the cheerful country-house”, claiming it was all the more effective for using such a location. Part of this is due to how it contrasts with the novel’s more exotic elements, just as ordinary characters will offer a balance to the criminal ones. Or as P.D. James puts it, “Wilkie Collins is excellent at describing the physical appearance and the atmosphere of the setting, particularly the contrast between the secure and prosperous Victorian Verinder household and the eerie loneliness of the shivering sands; between the exotic and accursed jewel that has been stolen and the outwardly respectable privileged lives of upper-class Victorians.” So the house carries connotations of wealth, as well.

James also notes that part of the setting’s job is to add credibility to the story, which is especially important in a genre “which often deals with the bizarre”. But the house, and its various rooms, has more importance than this. The detective novel genre is very much about boundaries, be they the literal ones regarding physical rooms or more metaphorical ones regarding social conduct, and rooms come to represent or reveal aspects of character. Miss Clack’s trespassing to eavesdrop on a private conversation in the drawing room, is one good example. The central crime of the novel involves a very significant instance of trespass, an intruder entering Rachel Verinder’s private boudoir in the night. Consider how this location emphasises the violation; some have even come to read the theft of her jewel as something more symbolic, likening it to a sexual crime.

There have been variations to this setting since Collins, of course, but the English country house as a contained environment with a variety of rooms has come to be a recognised staple of the genre. If you’ve ever played Cluedo you may recognise this already.

“the influence of character”

In the first edition preface to The Moonstone, Collins claimed he wanted characters to be his main focus, that he wanted to “trace the influence of character on circumstances” rather than the other way around. To do so he uses a range of perspectives, employing the epistolary form to provide first person narratives which not only provide a certain level of sympathetic intimacy but also add immediacy to the novel’s pace. In switching between viewpoints Collins is also able to vary this pace and make subtle shifts in tone, effective techniques in keeping the novel interesting.

Among Collins’s cast of characters are two in particular who are worth noting: the detectives.

Sergeant Cuff is one of the earliest professional detectives in fiction. Dickens may have beaten Collins to it with Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, but it is Sergeant Cuff who “provides the first analytical portrait of a professional at work”, according to Gavin Lambert. Cuff was based upon a real Scotland Yard inspector, Jonathan Whicher. The police force had been formed less than forty years previous to The Moonstone’s publication, the detective branch less than thirty, so it was a relatively new profession. It also meant working class men were now looking after the properties and interests of the middle and upper classes, which in a detective novel can provide a fascinating element of tension. Cuff, for example, rather eccentric but with a good sense of human nature, is unable to obtain important information that will confirm his suspicions because he is not a member of the upper classes. As a result he fails to solve the crime correctly. “It is only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weaknesses of making a mistake,” he notes, though he does correctly predict much of the novel’s outcome.

However, Collins also gives us Franklin Blake, as a blueprint for future detective ‘types’. Detective novels will often use an ‘amateur’ or non-professional detective figure, someone who remains detached from the class issues that may hinder a paid policeman. In this case, Blake doesn’t exactly stand separate from class issues but has the advantage of being a gentleman and is therefore able to gain information from the heiress Rachel Verinder. She tells him what she would not tell Cuff, though her information actually puts Blake under suspicion, providing other aspects typical of detective novels, a ‘twist’, and an accused individual trying to prove their innocence. This is the ‘red herring’ of most subsequent detective fiction.

“not so much works of art as science”

An intriguing plot is crucial for a successful detective novel. Plot concerns the order of events in a story, and as detective fiction is very much about re-establishing order it is little wonder P.D. James suggests it is the “highly organised structure” of a detective novel that sets it apart from mainstream fiction. “The classic detective story is almost pure narrative” says Sandra Kemp in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Moonstone, the genre concerned with “the manipulation of stories and the ways they can be told”.

It was upon attending an actual criminal trial that Collins saw how “the succession of testimonies so varied in form” were actually “strictly unified by their march towards the same goal”, observing how a chain of evidence could be turned into a plot for one of his novels. “The mode of the detective story is to create a mystery for the sole purpose of effecting its effortless dissipation” says David I Grossvogel in Mystery and its Fictions. It may well be that the detective makes it seem effortless, but it’s clear that Collins has in fact gone to a great deal of effort to provide an intricate plot. Indeed, Henry James said works of detective fiction were “not so much works of art as science”. Although Lambert argues that The Moonstone is one of “the only detective novels that go beyond a mechanical puzzle”, it is this ‘science’ element of plotting, the piecing together of various clues and testimonies, that makes The Moonstone, and many other detective novels since, so appealing for some readers

“there is an emphasis on the importance of physical clues”

When it comes to these clues, P.D. James credits Collins as being “meticulously accurate in his treatment of medical and forensic details” and notes that “there is an emphasis on the importance of physical clues” in The Moonstone, such as a blood-stained nightdress and a smeared door, a metal chain. Collins’s treatment of clues foreshadows the genre’s tradition of ‘fair play’, the detective never possessing more information than the reader. While the detective’s role is to reveal clues previously concealed or information previously withheld, discovering (or dis-covering, as David Grossvogel puts it) what the writer has hidden within the text, the idea is that a clever reader, paying close enough attention, could have solved the crime as well.

Of course, there are red herrings meant to mislead the reader, and often there are twists as these are dismissed and real clues followed, but the detective will bring everything together to reveal the culprit (often the least likely suspect!) in a dramatic denouement. Usually this will occur before a gathered crowd of characters or suspects, the criminal’s identity revealed in a logical but often theatrical manner. Consider Cuff’s predictions, and the name he seals in an envelope, for example, or the literal re-enactment of the theft under the influence of hypnosis.

The Moonstone Legacy

Many writers have tackled the detective novel since The Moonstone and the genre has developed, of course. Early American detective fiction, for example, is less likely to re-establish order completely – society is too corrupt for that – and tends to feature more violence, while the single detective figure has become, especially in television, a whole team of detectives in what’s known as a police procedural. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood brought us the True Crime genre and provided a great deal of insight regarding the criminals and these days we even have anti-hero figures that blur the line between detective and criminal, such as Jeff Lindsay’s character, Dexter Morgan. But whatever form the detective novel now takes, it owes a great debt to Wilkie Collins. He may not have invented the detective or mystery novel, but as Lambert goes on to note, he may have been "the first to grasp its expressive possibilities".

bottom of page