Wilkie (William) Collins was a friend of Charles Dickens, a prolific writer of Victorian sensation fiction, and the creator of the first English detective novel. He specialized in vividly imaginative and enjoyably dramatic stories, with a full complement of heroes, villains, fragile heroines and strong women. Like many nineteenth century authors, he published his fiction in serial form – in monthly or weekly magazines – a method of writing that necessitated frequent cliff-hanger endings so that readers would buy the next issue to read on.
There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road — there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven — stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London....
The Woman in White (1860) is Collins’ most famous novel; it is full of secrets and lies. The woman whom Walter Hartwright meets on Hampstead Heath late at night has just escaped from an asylum. The man who demanded her incarceration, Sir Percival Glyde, lives in fear of the revelations that the ‘madwoman’ could make – his impending marriage and his family fortune are threatened. To save himself, he enlists the help of the powerful Count Fosco – one of the most Machiavellian characters in English literature – and engages in a complex deception that leads to blackmail and murder.
Eight years after this brilliant piece of sensation fiction, Collins published his famous detective novel: The Moonstone. Like The Woman in White, this work can be read purely for the pleasure of the story. The moonstone is a gorgeous and valuable jewel, transported from India to England, and given to Lady Rachel Verinder on her birthday. It is a dangerous gift; within 24 hours, the moonstone is stolen, the family riven by conflict and mistrust and their friends’ lives disrupted. The police are called in to solve the crime, and the mystery plays itself out in a confused mass of secrets and lies.
I would recommend both of these novels to anyone who loves reading mysteries. The stories are enthralling, the characters are beautifully portrayed and the settings – from English country houses to the opium dens of London – are rich and fascinating. Both novels have unusual structures, told in a series of documents, including letters, diary entries and ‘eye-witness’ accounts. This technique adds variety to the work, and gives Collins the opportunity to experiment with different narrative voices. Unforgettable characters like the ingenious Sergeant Cuff, the self-righteous Drusilla Clack and the strong- minded, independent Marion Halcombe come vividly to life.
If you haven’t yet read William ‘Wilkie’ Collins, you have a fabulous treat to come!