Where to start with: Wilkie Collins | Books

Where to start with: Wilkie Collins | Books

Monday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian writer known for his mystery novels. His writing became foundational to the way modern crime novels are constructed, and his most famous works – The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone – have earned him an international reputation. British crime novelist and Collins fan Elly Griffiths offers a guide for those new to the author’s work.

The entry point

The Moonstone has all the ingredients we have come to expect from a cosy crime novel: a country house, a deadly crime, a brilliant detective. This recipe is now so well known that it’s almost a cliche but, in fact, this is thought to have been the first time these particular ingredients were mixed together. Sergeant Cuff is the first incarnation of the enigmatic sleuth, arriving at the scene after the bungling attempts of local officers, seemingly more interested in his unusual hobbies (in this case, rose-growing) than in the crime. The story is told by several narrators, not all of whom are trustworthy, and the solution, though definitely surprising, makes perfect retrospective sense. TS Eliot described The Moonstone as “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels”, making it the perfect place to start for those new to the writer. It is long but you won’t notice because the story bowls along and you will be captivated by the characters.

The one to drop into dinner party conversation

Collins is probably best known for two novels: The Moonstone and The Woman in White. But Collins published more than 30 books, so why not impress your friends by bringing up one of his many lesser-known works? Try Poor Miss Finch, which is about a blind woman who falls in love with a man who is completely blue.

If you’re in a rush

Collins wrote some great short stories. My favourite is The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed, which will put you off four-poster beds for life. There is also a terrific collection called The Haunted House, featuring ghost stories by many well-known Victorian writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. Collins’ offering is The Ghost in the Cupboard Room, a strange tale of Spanish pirates and a candle which, as it burns, leads you ever closer to death.

The one to give a miss

Critics tend to dismiss Collins’ later works, partly because they often focus on social issues. “What brought good Wilkie’s genius near perdition?” wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne. “Some demon whispered, ‘Wilkie! Have a mission’.” It’s true that many of the later books lack the joyful flair of The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but modern readers will surely applaud Collins for writing about subjects such as women’s inheritance rights. Having said that, you can probably avoid Heart and Science, which is about vivisection, while agreeing with the sentiments.

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The one that will cheer you up

Armadale isn’t a comedy but its audacity and verve would cheer anyone up. The book is also a murder mystery, of sorts. At least three people die in mysterious circumstances, there’s an inheritance, a shipwreck and a rambling estate in Norfolk. If this wasn’t enough, there’s also a flame-haired villainess called Lydia Gwilt. The names in this book are wonderful – and confusing. There are two Allan Armadales and a runaway called Ozias Midwinter. But Lydia alone is worth the cover price. “Who was the man who invented laudanum?” she demands. “I thank him from the bottom of my heart.”

The one that deserves more attention

No Name deserves to be up there with The Woman in White as one of the great “sensation novels” – a genre that was the precursor to what we now know as detective and suspense fiction. Sisters Norah and Magdalen Vanstone live an idyllic life in the countryside with their loving parents. Their main occupation is amateur dramatics (one of Wilkie Collins’ favourite pastimes too) and Magdalen, especially, is a talented actress. Then the girls’ parents die suddenly and they discover that the couple weren’t legally married. The sisters are robbed of their rightful inheritance, cast out with no money and “no name”, forced to rely on Magdalen’s acting talents to survive. Magdalen is another of Collins’ wonderful female protagonists but the book abounds with colourful characters, including the disreputable Captain Wragge and the noble Captain Kirke (a protype of the Star Trek hero?). No Name also contains my favourite Wilkie Collins quotation: “Nothing in the world is hidden forever … sand turns traitor and betrays the footstep that walked upon it.”

If you only read one, it should be

The best heroine in English literature … Jane Gurnett (centre) as Marian Halcombe in the Greenwich theatre, London, adaptation of The Woman in White in 1988 (with Helena Bonham-Carter as Anne Catherick/Laura Fairlie, left).
The best heroine in English literature … Jane Gurnett (centre) as Marian Halcombe in the Greenwich theatre, London, adaptation of The Woman in White in 1988 (with Helena Bonham-Carter as Anne Catherick/Laura Fairlie, left). Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

A man is walking home on a beautiful moonlit night, he hears a cry of distress and sees a beautiful woman, dressed in white, fleeing from pursuers. This actually happened to Collins and the woman was Caroline Graves, with whom he went on to have a relationship, but the incident was surely the inspiration for The Woman in White. The plot has it all – madness, incarceration, mind-control, fraud, organised crime, murder – yet, despite this, the book always keeps just on the right side of melodrama. The Woman in White also has, in my opinion, the best heroine in English literature. Marian Halcombe is clever, witty and incredibly resourceful. She also keeps a diary which the villain, the equally wonderful Count Fosco, not only reads but writes in. Like The Moonstone the story is told from many viewpoints, including “The Narrative of the Tombstone”.

The Last Word by Elly Griffiths will be published by Quercus on 30 January.

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