The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Alienist, Part Three, Chapter 31

Kreizler had engaged a first-class compartment, and after we’d settled into it I immediately stretched out on one seat with my face toward the small window, determined to strangle any curiosity I had about the behaviour of my friends with sleep. For his part, Laszlo pulled out a copy of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone that Lucius Isaacson had lent him and began very contentedly reading.

Although nearly two years has passed since the book blog feature was established on 17th Street, it is only now that I am finally overviewing the sole novel included by name in The Alienist. Described by T. S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels,” and by Dorothy L. Sayers as “possibly the very finest detective story ever written,” Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone also served as inspiration for Caleb Carr in the creation of the Alienist series. So, for our final book blog of 2015, let us take a journey back to Victorian England in search of the lost Indian Diamond known to history as The Moonstone.

What’s it about?

The Moonstone AudiobookThe Moonstone, First Period, Chapter 10

‘If you ever go to India, Miss Verinder, don’t take your uncle’s birthday gift with you … I know a certain city, and a certain temple in that city, where, dressed as you are now, your life would not be worth five minutes’ purchase.’

The year is 1848, and the spirited Miss Rachel Verinder is celebrating her eighteenth birthday in the company of family and friends at a house party on her family’s estate in Yorkshire. On this festive day, Miss Verinder is given an unexpected birthday gift that will change her life when it is stolen from her private chambers less than 24 hours after she receives it. The gift is the famous Yellow Diamond, reputed to be cursed, that was looted half a century earlier during the storming of Seringapatam. In a tale that will take you from the ‘shivering sands’ of the Yorkshire coast to London’s bustling streets, Wilkie Collins’s 1868 bestseller introduced an eager public to the idiosyncratic Sergeant Cuff—forerunner of Sherlock Holmes—whose powers of detection are stretched to the limit by three mysterious Indian Brahmin who will let nothing stand in their way to reclaim the lost Diamond, and a household in which nobody is above suspicion.

My thoughts

To explain why it has taken me so long to feature The Moonstone on 17th Street given its significance to the Alienist books, it might be best if I provide a little background before I begin. I first read The Moonstone 10 to 15 years ago, shortly after finishing Wilkie Collins’s first bestseller, The Woman in White. Having loved The Woman in White, I dived into The Moonstone expecting more of the same. Unfortunately, this approach left me somewhat disappointed.

Although it shares the same multiple-narration structure as its forerunner, I found The Moonstone—an early example of the detective novel—more methodological, slower paced, and lacking the psychological intrigue that had drawn me into The Woman in White. That is not to say that I disliked the novel, but where I might have given The Woman in White 5-stars, I probably would have given The Moonstone 3.5 or 4-stars. Thus, faced with the prospect of writing a book blog on The Moonstone for 17th Street, I found myself putting it off for as long as I reasonably could. One reading, I thought at the time, was enough.

However, as the months—nay, years—passed, and I felt that I could not put this off any longer, I decided to try re-reading The Moonstone as an audiobook (narrated by Peter Jeffrey)—and boy, am I glad that I did! Whether I went into the re-read with the right expectations and frame of mind this time (after all, I do enjoy a good detective novel), or whether I simply found a format that suited me better for this particular story, I can say with complete honesty that I loved this re-read, so much so that The Moonstone has become one of my favourite books of 2015, and is a solid 5-star read. Now I finally understand what the Isaacson brothers were on about all this time! | Continue reading →

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Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

We return to the 17th Street book blogs this month by moving far away from the world of Fifth Avenue mansions and upper class society for a journey into the slums of old New York. Although Caleb Carr has not, to my knowledge, referenced the work of late nineteenth century journalist and novelist Stephen Crane as an influence for the Alienist books, readers of Crane’s atmospheric New York novellas will instantly recognise the same city that was so vividly portrayed in The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Given that I have utilised the 2001 Modern Library Classics edition of Crane’s New York writings for this blog, which contains the definitive versions of his novellas Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893) and George’s Mother (1896), along with a comprehensive selection of his other Bowery tales, we will be considering both of Crane’s New York novellas together in the following post, rather than just focusing on Maggie, the most famous of the pair.

What’s it about?

Maggie, A Girl of the StreetsMaggie, A Girl of the Streets opens with a scene that would not be out of place if glimpsed in one of the Alienist books. Jimmie, “the little champion of Rum Alley,” is embroiled in a fight with a gang of street urchins from nearby Devil’s Row. Battered and bruised, with blood “bubbling over his chin and down upon his ragged shirt,” the fight only comes to a halt when Jimmie’s father arrives on the scene, obtaining his son’s obedience through violence of his own. As this opening scene suggests, life in the family home is no less frightening than life on the streets for Jimmie, his quiet older sister, Maggie, and his confused and neglected baby brother, Tommie. With a drunken father and an equally drunken, vicious mother who can match her husband blow for blow, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets chronicles the stories of Jimmie and Maggie as they grow up to find their own places in the poverty-stricken world that surrounds them, with one child embracing their fate while the other tries in vain to search for a way out.

In George’s Mother, the sequel to Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, we return once more to the tenement building of Jimmie’s family. Unlike Maggie, however, George’s Mother explores the inner struggles of George Kelcey, the hard-working son of a loving, patient, and temperance supporting mother who has only one fear for her sole surviving child: that he will succumb to the vice that lurks on every street corner in their neighbourhood, and turn to drink. Through these contrasting family portraits, Crane vividly demonstrates the powerful hold that alcohol maintained in the lives of the poor in late nineteenth century New York, and doesn’t shy away from chronicling its effects on the lives of children and adults alike, both inside and outside the family home.

My thoughts

My first impression upon reading the opening lines of Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, along with George’s Mother following it, was that I had once more been transported back into the world that John Moore and Stevie Taggert so vividly describe in The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Once again, the reader is there, looking down on the dusty streets from surrounding tenement buildings as we hear the howls arising from a gang of children hurling stones at a small boy who is standing atop a heap of gravel in a vain attempt to defend the honour of Rum Alley. Similarly, in George’s Mother we find ourselves “in the swirling rain that came at dusk” on a broad avenue glistening “with that deep bluish tint which is so widely condemned when it is put into pictures,” through which we witness,

George’s Mother, Chapter I

… the endless processions of people, mighty hosts, with umbrellas waving, banner-like, over them. Horse-cars, aglitter with new paint, rumbled in steady array between the pillars that supported the elevated railroad. The whole street resounded with the tinkle of bells, the roar of iron-shod wheels on the cobbles, the ceaseless trample of the hundreds of feet. Above all, too, could be heard the loud screams of the tiny newsboys, who scurried in all directions. Upon the corners, standing in from the dripping eaves, were many loungers, descended from the world that used to prostrate itself before pageantry.

Although Crane’s masterful portraits of the streets he knew so well are reason enough for any Alienist reader to pick up these stories, it is his examination of the role that alcohol played in the lives of the poor, and its contribution to other forms of vice ranging from violence to prostitution, that make these stories so compelling. | Continue reading →

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The Sherlock Holmes Companion by Daniel Smith

The Italian SecretaryAs we have already learned in the 17th Street book blog series, one of Caleb Carr’s inspirations while writing the Alienist books were the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. Mr. Carr explained in an interview with Australian newspaper The Age in 2005 that, “Kreizler was invented quite consciously as a character who could solve all the crimes Holmes couldn’t, in which there’s little or no physical evidence and no apparent motive – the product of aberrant criminal psychology.” Beyond Dr. Kreizler, there are references to the original Sherlock Holmes stories within the books as well, such as the inclusion of Filipino pygmy, El Niño, in The Angel of Darkness. Mr. Carr acknowledged in an interview with The Seattle Times in 1997 that El Niño was “a little tip of the hat to Conan Doyle and the pygmy in ‘The Sign of Four.’ A lot of people have told me they consider the pygmy an absurd character. That’s one reason I love this time period. What looks absurd to us now wasn’t absurd then – eccentricity was really appreciated and cultivated.”

In 2005, Mr. Carr took his interest in Sherlock Holmes one step further by accepting a commission from the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a further Holmes tale. His final product, The Italian Secretary, took Holmes from the foggy, gas lit streets of late nineteenth century London to the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, with a mystery that revolved around a double murder that called the great detective’s mind back to the (real life) murder of David Rizzio, private secretary to Mary Queen of Scots. The novel was well-received, with The Guardian describing Mr. Carr’s characterisation as “outstanding,” USA Today complimenting Mr. Carr’s “astute and unerring […] portrayal of Holmes and his techniques,” and Publisher’s Weekly suggesting that the novel would appeal to Holmes fans and scholars due to the “deep knowledge and understanding of Holmesiana” on display in the text.

The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary GuideFollowing the publication of The Italian Secretary, Mr. Carr was interviewed for Daniel Smith’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes reference text, The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide, that was updated and reissued in late 2014. Mr. Smith explains in his Introduction to the guide that he chose “individuals whose lives have become entwined with the Holmes legend” as subjects for the “Holmes and Me” interviews that he decided to scatter throughout the text as a means of offering further insight into the “enigma” that is Sherlock Holmes. In the 2014 reissue, Mr. Smith’s interview with Mr. Carr spans three pages of the text and explores questions such as when and how Mr. Carr first became interested in the Sherlock Holmes stories (as a boy of eight years old, it turns out); the particular challenges he faced in writing a new Holmes tale; the revival of Holmes in the twenty-first century and what it says about popular culture; the role Sherlock played in the creation of the Alienist novels; and finally, what Sherlock Holmes—the character—means to him. It’s an interview that is well worth perusing if you are a Caleb Carr reader who also loves Sherlock Holmes, as I am.

The Caleb Carr interview aside, the 2014 reissued guide is a worthy addition to the library of any interested Sherlock Holmes reader. Opening with a social and political chronology of historical events that correspond to the period from Holmes’ first reported case until he went into retirement (i.e., 1879-1903), the majority of this beautifully illustrated 224-page text comprises spoiler-free synopses (each synopsis is one page long) of all four Holmes novels and fifty-six short stories. It also contains brief biographies of Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and notable Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget, analyses of the main characters who appear throughout the stories, and a series of essays that look at specific elements of the literary Holmes (e.g., “Holmes as the Detective-Scientist”) as well as his role in popular culture (e.g., “Holmes on Stage, Screen, and Radio”). Finally, scattered throughout the text are the aforementioned “Holmes and Me” interviews with individuals ranging from writers such as Mr. Carr, to actors such as Edward Hardwicke who played Dr. Watson for the acclaimed Granada TV production alongside Jeremy Brett, to the co-creator of the hit TV series Sherlock, Mark Gatiss.

Also scattered throughout the text are a number of fun insets that are sure to appeal to any readers like myself who love learning about the minutiae of the books we love. One such inset contains a list of Sherlock Holmes’ most significant writings. Another contains the now famous illustrated floor plan of 221B Baker Street that was created by Russell Stutler after a close reading of the canonical stories. And yet another (my personal favourite) contains an illustrated guide to the Holmes/Watson firearm collection—immensely helpful for readers such as myself who don’t know their pistols from their revolvers! The only inset that is missing, in my opinion, is a similar illustrated guide to Sherlock’s collection of pipes, although it is worth mentioning that a discussion of the subject is offered in the short yet informative “Holmes and His Pleasures” essay.

While it is likely that this guide won’t cover any terribly new ground if you already own a number of Sherlock texts, if you would like a comprehensive introductory guide to the original Sherlock Holmes canon then this is an excellent choice. Moreover, for Caleb Carr readers, there is, as I’ve already mentioned, the added bonus of an interesting and informative interview spread. Enjoy!

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The Books We Love And What They Say About Us

franklin-libraryIt’s February 14th, and love is in the air! — or so Hallmark would have us believe. So, for those of you who are curling up with a book you love this Valentine’s Day instead of, or in addition to, a more conventional partner, I thought this might be a good opportunity to spend some time talking about the books we love, and in particular to address the question of what those books say about us. This topic was prompted by a recent post on Book Riot where a contributor discussed a conundrum they recently faced in preparing to attend a book event for Valentine’s Day in which attendees were to asked to bring a copy of their favourite book to exchange with other book lovers. Specifically, the contributor couldn’t decide which book they should bring. As they explained, “I have many favourite books, but if a favourite book says something about you, I have to choose wisely.” Elaborating, they went on to say:

Plath’s The Bell Jar might not be the best message I want to send. I don’t know if The Catcher in the Rye is too cliché, or too much of a “guy’s” book. I love anything and everything Flannery O’Connor, but I’m not quite sure what that message would be. Gone With the Wind? Might send a confusing message without my explanation of why I love it, and who wants to carry around such a hulking book, anyway? Little Women? I mean, come on – ask most writers, we love Jo March. But it seems a little quaint for me.

Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering with some amusement what the contributor of that Book Riot post would think if someone such as myself were to turn up to such an event carrying a book with a storyline that included, to quote Stevie Taggert, “slaughtered boy-whores, cannibalism, and eyeballs in a jar”? Of course, strictly speaking, if I were to turn up to that kind of event with an Alienist book, it would be more likely to be The Angel of Darkness which is actually my favourite of the two novels. But is it really much of an improvement to turn up with a book containing a storyline that features, to quote John Moore, “kidnapping, murdered infants, grave robbing—and we did the grave robbing, for God’s sake—”?

Of course, for those of you who have read last year’s special three-part series on The Alienist, you will know that my reasons for loving the Alienist books extend far beyond “slaughtered boy-whores, cannibalism, and eyeballs in a jar.” Nevertheless, to all the other readers of the Alienist books, I find myself curious. What does your love of the Alienist books say about you? And if you weren’t going to take an Alienist book to represent “you” at a book exchange event, what novel would you take and why?

For those of you who might be curious, if I wasn’t going to take an Alienist book to represent “me” at a book exchange event, you would most likely find me with a copy of The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (impossible to choose between them), Mansfield Park, Emma, or Persuasion by Jane Austen (another impossible choice), The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox instead. All are among my favourite novels (the full list is, of course, much longer), all were written by psychologically insightful authors, and all explore similar themes in different ways; but none, it’s worth pointing out, have plots that revolve around serial killers (with the possible exception of The Meaning of Night depending on how you want to define “serial killer”).

Perhaps this will come as a surprise to many 17th Street visitors, but as a general rule I’m not a reader of horror or grisly crime fiction. Instead, my favourite novels—that is, the novels I re-read rather than those I read just once—tend to be classics or literary fiction that tackle the eternal questions, especially the question of what makes us who we are. William Nicholson gave C. S. Lewis a now famous line in Shadowlands: “We read to know we’re not alone.” I absolutely agree. In my own case, there is something comforting in the knowledge that there were, and continue to be, others out there—the Edith Whartons, Jane Austens, Leo Tolstoys, and Caleb Carrs of the world—who have, throughout history, seen human nature in much the same way that I do.

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