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How can I begin discussing: Wilkie Collins?
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How can I begin discussing: Wilkie Collins?

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This Monday commemorates the 200th birthday of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian author renowned for his suspenseful stories. His writing laid the foundation for the structure of modern crime novels, and his most well-known pieces – The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone – have gained him worldwide recognition. Elly Griffiths, a British crime writer and fan of Collins, offers a beginner’s guide to his works.


The entry point

The novel The Moonstone contains all the elements typically found in a cozy crime story: a rural estate, a fatal crime, and a brilliant detective. While this formula is now considered cliché, it is believed that this was the first instance of these specific ingredients being combined. Sergeant Cuff is the original version of the mysterious investigator, arriving on the scene after the failed attempts of local officers. He appears more interested in his unconventional hobbies, such as rose-growing, than in solving the crime. The story is told from multiple perspectives, some of which may not be reliable, and the solution, while unexpected, makes perfect sense upon reflection. TS Eliot hailed The Moonstone as “the first, longest, and best” of modern English detective novels, making it an ideal starting point for those new to the author. Despite its length, readers will become engrossed in the fast-paced plot and compelling characters.


A topic to bring up during a dinner party discussion.

Collins is renowned for his two most famous novels: The Moonstone and The Woman in White. However, he also wrote over 30 other books. So, why not amaze your acquaintances by mentioning one of his lesser-known works? Consider Poor Miss Finch, a tale about a blind woman who falls for a man with blue skin.


, try to avoid caffeine

If you’re pressed for time, it’s best to limit your intake of caffeine.

Collins penned a number of exceptional short stories. One that stands out to me is The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed, which will leave you with an aversion to four-poster beds. Another notable compilation is The Haunted House, showcasing ghostly tales from prominent Victorian authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens. Among Collins’ contributions is The Ghost in the Cupboard Room, a peculiar narrative involving Spanish pirates and a candle that guides its burning victim towards their demise.


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The one to skip or ignore.

Critics often overlook Collins’ later works, possibly due to their emphasis on social matters. Algernon Charles Swinburne once questioned, “What led Wilkie’s talent astray?” suggesting that a “demon” urged him to have a “mission.” While it is true that these later books lack the whimsical charm of The Moonstone or The Woman in White, contemporary readers will appreciate Collins’ efforts to address topics like women’s rights to inheritance. However, it may be best to skip Heart and Science, a book that delves into the controversial topic of vivisection, even if one agrees with its message.

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The one that will cheer you up

Armadale may not be categorized as a comedy, but its boldness and liveliness would surely lift anyone’s spirits. The novel also has elements of a murder mystery, with at least three deaths under mysterious circumstances, an inheritance, a shipwreck, and a sprawling estate in Norfolk. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a captivating and fiery antagonist named Lydia Gwilt. The names of the characters in this book are both enchanting and perplexing, including two Allan Armadales and a runaway named Ozias Midwinter. However, Lydia alone is worth the price of the book. She boldly asks, “Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart.”


The one that warrants greater consideration.

The novel No Name can be compared to The Woman in White as a notable “sensation novel,” which laid the foundation for today’s detective and suspense fiction. The story follows sisters Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, who lead a tranquil life in the countryside with their loving parents. One of their shared interests is amateur dramatics, a favorite pastime of author Wilkie Collins. However, when their parents suddenly pass away, the sisters are faced with the shocking revelation that their parents were never legally married. As a result, they are stripped of their rightful inheritance and left with no money or social standing. To survive, they must rely on Magdalen’s acting abilities. The novel features a cast of vibrant characters, including the dubious Captain Wragge and the honorable Captain Kirke (possibly an inspiration for the Star Trek hero?). One of Collins’ remarkable female protagonists, Magdalen is a highlight of the story. Additionally, the book includes my favorite quote by Collins: “Nothing in the world is hidden forever… sand turns traitor and betrays the footstep that walked upon it.”


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If you can only read one, make it a.

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).

On a lovely night illuminated by the moon, a man is walking home when he hears a distressed cry. He spots a woman in white being pursued and comes to her aid. This scenario actually occurred to Collins and became the basis for his relationship with Caroline Graves, as well as the inspiration for his novel, The Woman in White. The story contains elements of madness, imprisonment, manipulation, deceit, organized crime, and murder, yet manages to avoid becoming overly dramatic. In my opinion, this book has the best female protagonist in all of English literature – Marian Halcombe is intelligent, witty, and resourceful. She also keeps a diary that is read and written in by the equally intriguing villain, Count Fosco. Similar to The Moonstone, the narrative is told from multiple perspectives, including “The Narrative of the Tombstone.”

Source: theguardian.com