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This is an audio version of Wilkie Collins' classic and very entertaining 1868 novel The Moonstone featuring Clive Swift, Chris Larkin, Delia Paton, Bill Homewood, Neville Jason and music by some characters called Schubert, Brahms and Mendelssohn. The story revolves around a precious glittering gem looted from an Indian temple and given to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday by suitor Franklin Blake. That very night though the diamond is mysteriously stolen and everyone is suddenly a suspect. This is a very special stone and is said by some to carry an ancient curse. "The earliest known traditions describe the stone as having been set in the forehead of the four-handed Indian God who typifies the Moon. Partly from its peculiar colour, partly from a superstition which represented it as feeling the influence of the deity whom it adorned, and growing and lessening in lustre with the waxing and waning of the Moon, it first gained the name by which it continues to be known in India to this day - THE MOONSTONE!" The complicated structure of The Moonstone (different narrators giving their own version of events) means that we receive a mass of conflicting evidence in the story. It becomes a huge abstract puzzle that seems impossible to solve but, of course, is in the end. The resolution is very far out and rather in keeping with the sometimes delirious and dreamlike atmosphere that laces events. In many ways it's a melodrama about class that just happens to have an extraordinary feat of deduction at its heart. This is a wonderfully enjoyable and completely bonkers story that was written by a laudanum and opium lashed author. No wonder Wilkie Collins later claimed he couldn't even remember writing the book in the first place.
The cast here (not heard of any of them myself) are fine and the beautiful music makes for a pleasant backdrop to the story. I should point out that this is slightly abridged though. You should really read the book first if you haven't done so but - even if you have - this is an enjoyable companion to have coming through your earphones on a dull train journey. I personally like to drown out those eerie robotic messages from that woman on the speaker telling me what the next station is going to be 76 times in the space of ten minutes. Very irritating. Key to The Moonstone is a positive slew of memorable characters - like Gabriel Betteredge, the Verinder's trusty old House-Steward. Betteredge narrates the first part of the story and introduces us to Sergeant Cuff (the brilliant and idiosyncratic detective who duly grapples with the Moonstone mystery) and is obsessed with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which he always turns to in times of crisis for comfort and wisdom. Betteredge has "worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in in my service". He uses the book to make sense of events and guide his actions. "Before I had been at it six minutes, I came to this amazing bit - page one hundred and sixty-one - as follows: 'Fear of Danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than Danger itself, when apparent to the eyes, and we find the Burden of Anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about.' The man who doesn't believe in Robinson Crusoe after that is a man with a screw loose in his understanding, or a man lost in the mist of his own self-conceit!" You actually feel like giving Robinson Crusoe a whirl yourself after The Moonstone. I did watch a television version with a bearded Pierce Brosnan once but I don't think that entirely compensates for this gap in my reading.
Sergeant Cuff himself is a wonderful character too and may well have provided part of the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. The Moonstone has been called the first of the modern English detective novels and many of its elements still remain with us. Cuff is the core of the story and - like Holmes - his reputation always goes before him. "If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unravelling a mystery, there isn't the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!" Although he's described as looking like an undertaker and not exactly a barrel of laughs, Cuff is still charismatic. You are always interested to know what his take on something is because you know it's the one that matters. He's like Garry Kasparov in a chess match. Always thinking several moves ahead of everyone else. The Moonstone is an intricate detective story that slowly unravels and it's always absorbing to follow this rather strange investigation. Cuff is obsessed with roses (inspiration for some enjoyable botanical passages) and is a rather world weary character who has seen it all - except perhaps a case like the Moonstone. "This is a miserable world. Human life Mr Bettteredge, is a sort of target - misfortune is always firing at it, and always hitting the mark... " We are always happy and content to be in the company of Cuff as he questions the characters, dispenses his nuggets of wisdom and attempts to unravel the not inconsiderable puzzle of the Moonstone and its strange and sudden disappearance, almost as if it floated away on the etha like a dream that you can't quite remember the next morning.
There is an interesting subtext in the story that critiques the Imperial era and servants (often comic foils in books of this time) are strong and vivid characters in their own right. Roseanna Spearman, the servant who seems to carry important secrets, loves who she wants to love regardless of her station in life. The story was conceived at the height of the Victorian era and is set in London and Yorkshire in 1848. The legendary stone is almost like an extra character in the book and a wonderful McGuffin. "The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed as unfathomable as he heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and then shut the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark. No wonder Miss Rachel was fascinated: no wonder her cousins screamed." The Shivering Sand is an equally famous component of the novel. A place of beauty and quicksand where appearances can be deceptive. The actors here are fine I think. Not too wooden and theatrical but bringing a certain gravitas. There are five narrators and Swift as Bettteredge is good in particular. The music is pleasant too of course. The more light playful strains of Mendelssohn capture the spirit of certain passages of the novel surprisingly well. Mendelssohn is very summer. I imagine people idly lazing on grass when I hear him. Badminton on the lawn, sunlight gloriously catching gaps in the tree tops, the thud of leather on willow, beach huts painted in the colours of the rainbow, a small boat bobbing up and down close to the shore, blinding sparkles of sun reflecting off cars, a picnic on the golf course, spotty chavs walking around with no top on.
The Moonstone is often amusing ("If Mr Jennings will permit me. I should like to ask a favour. Mr Jennings is about to try a scientific experiment tonight. I used to attend scientific experiments when I was a girl at school. They invariably end in explosion... ") and always feels ahead of its time. Wilkie Collins was far less conservative than his peers and he certainly knew how to keep his reader engaged. The Moonstone is more mystifying than an episode of The Crystal Maze and more dreamlike than someone dreaming about having a dream. The audacious twists are the icing on top of the bun and the wonderful characters are a big mug of tea to, er, wash your bun down with. The Moonstone is just a great yarn. Very mad and enjoyable. Always better to read the novel for yourself if you haven't but this is a nice adaption all the same. I got this out of the local library but at the time of writing you can buy it new for about £10 and used for a lot less.