Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone: Brilliant Launch of the Detective Novel (55+)

Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) was an inventive novelist, strongly opposed to the social and moral conventions of his time. With The Moonstone he created one of the earliest and best detective novels—even though his admirable sleuth reaches precisely the wrong conclusions, leaving the other characters to investigate the mystery on their own. Collins thus pits fact-based reasoning against Romantic values of sympathy and imagination.

We’ll see how The Moonstone critiques imperialism and racism: the story begins with an imperial crime, and later has apparently sinister non-white characters turn out to play positive roles, representing higher spiritual insight. We’ll end by considering Arthur Conan Doyle’s enigmatic Sherlock Holmes, and by exploring how the methods of both Collins and Doyle relate to later developments in detective fiction.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to do the following:

  • Describe how the detective story emerges and develops its full vitality in the Victorian period
  • Discuss the ambiguities of the detective as literary figure in a society which idealized the detective as public protector but also feared police investigation as a violation of the private life by social inferiors
  • Outline the ideas of some advanced Victorian psychologists and also a Victorian fasction with mystical visions provided by opium
  • Describe how Wilkie Collins broadens the detective genre by centering his mystery on character and making a critique of racism and Victorian attitudes towards women
  • Assess critical theories about the detective genre. Why is it so popular; how much is it limited by its conventions; how might a good novelist be able to get beyond them?

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction

Wilkie Collins felt himself to be a complete outsider in the Victorian age. He was an intimate friend of Dickens and achieved great popularity by inventing the “sensation novel,” a blend of the gothic tradition with fictional realism devoted to exposing dark secrets in Victorian family life. With The Moonstone Collins tempers gothic fantasy with the basic adherence to reason required by detective fiction. We will briefly trace the real and fictional emergence of the detective from the establishment of the Detective Branch of the Metropolitan Police and literary depictions of the detective as hero by Poe and Dickens.

Week 2: The circumstances of the theft

The novel is divided into several narratives provided by different characters. The opening narrative provides an eye-witness account of murders and the theft of the diamond committed by an English officer while looting a temple in India. Then Gabriel Betteredge, loyal house-steward and very entertaining narrator, gives us the first half of the novel. This features the mysterious Indian performers, and the brief introduction of Rosanna Spearman, a reformed thief with a tragic destiny who becomes a working-class double to Rachel Verinder, the aristocratic heroine. Rachel’s sudden hostility to all attempts to investigate the theft of her diamond becomes the central mystery of the novel and, in Sergeant Cuff’s view, makes her a leading suspect in its disappearance.

Week 3: Resistance to the detective’s hypothesis

We will take a close look at the heated confrontation in Chapter 21 where Rachel’s mother and Gabriel Betteredge take on the equally determined detective, Sergeant Cuff. Their argument spells out a basic conflict between Cuff’s cold reasoning based on his knowledge of criminal behavior in general and sympathetic intuition on the part of those who know Rachel as a person. After Gabriel’s narrative, Miss Clack, an evangelical moralist, and Mr. Bruff, a practical-minded lawyer, continue to comment on Rachel’s inexplicable moods and actions.

Week 4: A deeper retelling of the story

Franklin Blake, hero of the novel, returns and takes up the narrative. He attempts a thorough reconstruction of all events leading up to the disappearance of the diamond. The discovery of Rosanna Spearman’s letter after her tragic death makes a startling revelation and establishes her as a major character as we re-experience key events of the past from her point of view. As a partial resolution of the mystery, a re-enactment of events on the night of the theft is directed and explained by a mixed-race doctor, Ezra Jennings, who ministers to the poor but is widely distrusted in the rural community. He claims to be strictly scientific, but provides a visionary narrative tinged with opium addiction, in contrast to the hard-nosed reasoning of Sergeant Cuff. Jennings may be a dark double of his author; because of a serious illness, Collins had also become deeply addicted to opium.

Week 5: Finale of The Moonstone; we turn to a later Victorian detective

We will consider the philosophical implications of the conclusion of the novel and start on the investigation of another hard-fact Victorian detective, this time with a tendency to morphine, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Inspired by a brilliant diagnostician who was his favorite teacher in medical school, Doyle conceived in Holmes an obsessive and rigorously scientific detective who could reconstruct a life-history from apparently trivial details. This medical source suggests that Holmes might have a more humane motive than he admits. He claims to see his cases only as problems in deductive logic, but assisted by the genial Dr. Watson, who narrates all his cases and enhances their human significance, Holmes has become, for all his peculiarities, one of the most famous and best-loved characters in fiction.

Week 6: Conclusion: Mysteries of the genre

Between them, Collins and Doyle endowed the detective genre with a wide variety of possibilities, ranging from psychological analysis to the strictly scientific (and sometimes medical) observation of the facts. We can consider to what extent the conventions of the detective story have enhanced or inhibited its development as fiction. We might also ponder why, starting in the twentieth century, female novelists have made such an important contribution to what at first seemed an exclusively masculine genre.  

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

  • The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins

This book will be available from the SFU Bookstore or at your local or online bookstore.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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