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Wilkie Collins: Father of the Detective Novel

by Charles L. P. Silet

T. S. Eliot is said to have described Wilkie Collins as Charles Dickens without genius, and yet, Collins had a genius of sorts that even Dickens recognized.

The Law and the Lady provides plenty of period atmosphere, a resourceful and likable heroine, and enough narrative interest to keep the reader pressing on. For those who know only Wilkie Collins' more famous mystery novels, here is an opportunity to understand more fully why his books had such a wide influence on the form. This later work may prove to be a surprising addition to the canon of Victorian crime fiction. The Woman in White and The Moonstone were serialized in Dickens' periodical All Year Round, and Collins had an influence on the dramatic structure of his friend's later works that Eliot acknowledged. Moreover Wilkie Collins was not just a mid-Victorian novelist of some success and talent but is now widely recognized by most historians of crime fiction as the father of the modern English detective novel.

Wilkie Collins grew up with a famous father, William Collins, an accomplished, early nineteenth-century, academic painter, and his first book was an account of his father's remarkable life. Although artistic himself--he exhibited a landscape at the Royal Academy in 1849--it was his writing that eventually absorbed his talents. Antonina; or the Fall of Rome, an historical romance, was his first novel and was published in 1850, the year before he met Charles Dickens, with whom he traveled and enjoyed a close personal and working friendship.

In 1860 The Woman in White was published. It received an enthusiastic public response and started a "Woman-in-White" craze which gave rise to a popular song, a dramatization of the novel, and even prompted women to dress in white. The Moonstone was published in 1868 also to wide acclaim and secured Collins' place as the popularizer of the Victorian crime novel. In a now little-known essay, written in response to the growth of literacy in Britain, Collins described what he called the "unknown public" of popular fiction readers, who he felt had been under-served by the novel-writing community, a public he set out to capture by writing books that would appeal to their tastes and interests. One of the strategies he employed was to adapt the prevailing crime story--which was primarily a working-class genre--to the tastes of the growing middle-class reading public. The Woman in White and The Moonstone did just that and secured his claim as the author of the first English detective novel. Although he is now best remembered for these works, he continued to write throughout his life and one of his later crime romances, The Law and the Lady (1875), deserves more recognition that it has received.

It is an interesting fiction for several reasons, and not the least of them is Collins' creation of his heroine, Valeria Brinton, who is the narrator and one of the first female protagonists in an English detective novel. The tale begins with Valeria marrying Eustace Woodville, only to learn that her husband has married her under a false name and false pretenses. Eustace lives under a cloud of scandal. Married before, under his real name Macallen, he was accused of poisoning his first wife and tried in Edinburgh. The jury delivered the verdict of "not proven," an oddity of Scottish law which allows the court to express doubts about the defendant's guilt by not fully acquitting him. Wracked by guilt over his deception toward Valeria and the social disgrace of the unresolved verdict, Eustace flees to the safety of the continent to hide his embarrassment. In spite of his bizarre behavior Valeria believes in her husband's innocence, and the rest of the novel traces her efforts to gather the evidence to overturn the court's verdict.

The Law and the Lady is wonderfully atmospheric, full of now-quaint social rituals and restraints, many of which Valeria seems to ignore. The novel also contains a gallery of odd Dickensian characters, the oddest of which are the legless, wheel-chair bound, Byronic eccentric Miserrimus Dexter and his Caliban-like companion, Ariel. Also there are plenty of plot twists, false starts, and ingenious clues (including the remains of an incriminating letter discovered by sifting through a pile of ashes at the family estate).

An Annotated Wilkie Collins Reading List

The Woman in White, 1860

The Moonstone, 1868

The Law and the Lady, 1875

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BIO 
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.