The Moonstone

I’ve been trying to avoid news and current affairs podcasts, which is leaving a big gap in my audio listening schedule. I’ve been filling it by going through The Guardian’s list of the best 100 novels in English in haphazard fashion. The list’s editor, Robert McCrum, called The Moonstone (1868) the greatest English detective novel, so I decided to give the Librivox audiobook of the Moonstone a try.

I almost immediately didn’t like it. The narrative focuses around a massive diamond, the eponymous Moonstone, which was stolen from a Hindu temple in the 1200s by Mogul invaders, then stolen from them in turn by English soldiers in the 1800s. The narration presumes that the English soldiers have a right to take whatever they want from the recently conquered colonial India, and frames the three Indians who try to steal it back as the threatening antagonists. In other words, it’s racist and imperialist a.f.

But after the introduction, I was able to keep enjoying it. The Moonstone is an epistolary novel; that is, the story is told through a series of about a dozen different news stories, letters, and diary entries. Because each entry has such a strong personality and point of view, the faults of the story feel more easily attributable to the faults of the different narrators. I didn’t feel like I was excusing or overlooking the author’s terrible point of view, since the point of view was easy to ascribe to the characters instead.

What resulted was a great upside-down story where the narrators complain of the wily Indians sneaking in to steal their precious loot, while I, the reader, get to root for heroes of repatriation that I only get glimpses of them from the distance through their enemies’ eyes. I realise this is 180 degrees reversed from the author’s intent, probably, but it still made for a fun read.

The story is good over all. The characters are rich, nuanced, and mostly unbearable. The mystery is interesting and the solution is surprising. I hope I don’t spoil it for you by saying that the Victorian nobles who make up the main cast of characters almost entirely shoot themselves in the foot; they end up being their own worst enemies.

The Librivox audiobook is a real mixed bag, though. It’s got multiple readers — I think there was an attempt to have a different reader for each narrating character, but I’m not sure that quite succeeded. As with most multi-reader Librivox audiobooks, the readers have a range of voice skills; some are a pleasure, and some are grating or unlistenable. I tried the second version of the book from Librivox; as a rule of them, it’s good to listen to the most recent version of a Librivox audiobook, since the community keeps making new versions until one exists that is not too irritating to listen to. The second one is a solo reader, too, which is also usually good. But the second version of the Moonstone is, well, awful. I couldn’t last a minute.

150+ years after it first came out, we think about the abduction of cultural artefacts by imperial powers a lot differently than they did in Victorian England. I can only hope that the story of the Moonstone, with its resourceful and relentless repatriators, is a good omen for other captive cultural treasures, like the stolen Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.

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