The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, is often considered to be the first real detective novel written in the English language. TS Eliot said that the detective genre was 'invented by Collins' and crime writer Dorothy Sayers called The Moonstone 'probably the finest detective story ever written'. The tale of a mysterious (possibly cursed) diamond stolen from an English country house in strange circumstances, it is a cracking read: atmospheric, exciting and full of twists and turns. When I first read it as a teenager, it immediately became one of my all-time favourites.
When I came to write The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I turned back to The Moonstone as part of my research. I knew I wanted to write an exciting detective story about a mysterious diamond going missing - so what better place to go in search of inspiration?
But on returning to this old favourite, I was reminded of one of the things that had always bothered me (as well as lots of other readers and critics) about the book. At the very start of the story, against a setting of war and bloodshed, a British soldier steals a priceless diamond, the Moonstone, from an Indian temple. A few years later, he leaves the diamond to his niece Miss Rachel Verinder as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. But as soon as the Moonstone arrives at her country home, Rachel, her family, and their guests all become aware of the threatening presence of a group of Indians on the trail of their long-lost jewel, who (we are told) will stop at nothing to get their sacred diamond back.
Over the course of the story, the diamond is stolen; a famous detective is called in to solve the case and return Miss Verinder’s diamond; and a whole cast of characters find themselves drawn into the mystery. Yet at no point does anyone seem to express the obvious - that it’s the Indians and not Rachel Verinder who are the rightful owners of the Moonstone in the first place.
What is more, although this is a story told in a whole range of different voices, the Indian characters in the story are never allowed to speak for themselves or to relate their own version of events. They appear only in the narratives of the white British characters who encounter them; they have no names; and we know nothing about them, except that they are mystical and exotic - as well as sinister and dangerous.
Spoiler alert (highlight to read!): after a dastardly plot, a murder and a marriage, the Indians do eventually reclaim their diamond, and return it home - but still, for a contemporary reader, the imperialistic overtones of the story are impossible to miss.
With The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I was interested in putting my own spin on this classic work of detective fiction. I wondered what the story might have been like if it had been told from the point of view of the Indians. How would it have felt to have your most sacred, valuable possession stolen from you - and what would happen if you had the opportunity to get it back?
For this story, I came up with the new character of Mei Lim, and her family who run a grocer’s shop in London’s Edwardian Chinatown. Mei has grown up hearing her Chinese grandfather’s old tales of the Moonbeam Diamond - a precious and sacred gem that was once the pride of the temple in the village in China where he grew up. The diamond brought the Lim family prosperity and luck - until it was stolen by a visitor to their village; a treacherous British gentleman. Years later, her family believe the diamond is long gone - but when Mei spots a picture of an elegant young society girl wearing it in a London newspaper, she knows she must seize this chance to try and return it to its rightful home.
I had a lot of fun paying tribute to The Moonstone in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth - if you’re a fan of classic detective fiction, you might spot one or two of these references. I’ve joked that this book is a bit like ‘The Moonstone for kids’ but as well as being an exciting detective tale that will keep young readers turning the pages, I hope that it will also offer an opportunity to flip this classic story on its head - and to hear from some of the voices that are so often missing from Victorian and Edwardian literature.
If you enjoy reading classics, or if you want to read more, why not join the fantastic Classics Challenge hosted by my friend Stacey over at Pretty Books? It's a great way to find other classics lovers, discuss books, and get and give recommendations. Check out this post and don't miss the hashtag
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