Fun has become the prime determinant in what I read. When I go to the library these days, I check out five books knowing I’ll finish only two. If, after the first thirty pages, I don’t care about a novel’s plot, I put it aside. There is too much fun stuff out there to waste limited reading time on books that I don’t enjoy. I still occasionally read not-fun novels when the writing is exceptional, but I do even less of that than I used to.
Which brings me to the inexplicable fact that last night I finished The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. The book was not fun. It also was not good writing. The prose meandered, the characters were not interesting, and the mystery of a missing diamond was not something that would ordinarily hold my attention. So this morning, I sit in a coffee shop seriously wondering how Collins got me to finish his novel. What if, on some level, the guy was a literary genius? In reflecting on The Moonstone, I have come to three conclusions.
One, I read The Moonstone in its entirety because it appears high on just about every list of the Greatest-Mystery-Novels-of-All-Time. The other authors on those lists – Conan Doyle, Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Christie, Cain – all elevate mystery writing as a genre. I kept thinking that if I stuck with Collins I would come across his unique contribution, too.
Two, I became intrigued with the convoluted plot. The story was told through the eyes of multiple narrators, and each one had his or her own pointless digressions. I became curious whether the novelist would be able to pull everything together. What if The Moonstone was another The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the unexpected and perfect conclusion trumps any flaws in the rest of the book? As it turns out, Collins relied on illogical drug-induced behavior by one of the main characters to tie up lose ends. I half bought it, but The Moonstone is no Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Three, there was one literary device that did work on me and, for this, I give Collins credit. In the entire novel, there was only one character, Sergeant Cuff, who seemed to know what was going on. Early on, he solved part of the mystery and then dropped out of the story. Then, for the next 300 pages, tidbits of new information gradually whittled away at Cuff’s conclusions, and the reader is left trying to figure out whether Cuff went wrong and, if so, where.
I didn’t enjoy The Moonstone, but I am a little bit awed at the way it sucked me in.