Monday, January 12, 2015


I've recently finished Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE, often cited as one of the first novels that cemented the European mystery-detective genre. I didn't find it nearly as salutary an experience as his arguably more famous novel THE MOONSTONE, which boasts not only a better plot but an exciting pace and more rounded characters.

That said, THE WOMAN IN WHITE has one thing going for it that MOONSTONE did not: a story that totally invalidates one of the major tropes of the detective genre, so much so that I view it as being "anti-detective," at least in theme.

One of the most enduring themes of the straightforward detective story is the reader's experience of salvation when the clever detective sees the solution to some puzzle that has confounded all others. I don't know whether literary pundits still deem Edgar Allan Poe to be the creator of the detective story, but in at least two of his Dupin stories, Poe concretized the idea of the detective as the solver of great puzzles, both in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter."

As in many such detective stories, the 1860 novel WOMAN IN WHITE does present the audience with a very convoluted scheme involving certain villains' attempts to despoil an heiress of her inheritance, And two of the principal witnesses to the scheme-- main characters Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe-- become amateur detectives in order to figure out what has been done and what they can do about it.

Without detailing that scheme, though, I will say that Collins structures the novel so that even when the heroes find out the truth, the villains have arranged things so thoroughly to their advantage that the detectives can't DO anything with their knowledge. At the very time when a Dupin or Holmes would unveil the secret that solves the whole difficulty, Walter and Marian find themselves helpless to make that revelation, because they know that no one will believe them.

Collins, in other words, has no faith that society will listen to the detective once he reveals the truth.  Early in the novel the main villain Count Fosco pokes fun at one character's belief that "murder will out," claiming that only stupid criminals are easily found out, and he does arrange things so that it takes advantage of both the inertia of society and the straightjacketing effects of the legal system. On a side-note Collins' father nagged the author into studying law, so that Collins might have some more profitable employment than being a writer. Collins, in showing in his novel that the law hampers more than it helps, may be demonstrating his extreme dislike for the legal profession in THE WOMAN IN WHITE-- though to be sure, Collins' friend and collaborator Charles Dickens had provided an even greater excoriation of the law in 1852's BLEAK HOUSE.

The undoing of the novel's villains takes place not because of any great revelation, but simply because Walter, by sheer coincidence, lucks into making contact with an enemy of Fosco, and that enemy is key to tearing down Fosco's tapestry of deception.  And thus, though THE WOMAN IN WHITE still qualifies as a "detective novel" in terms of content, in terms of theme it rejects one of the main emotional satisfactions of the genre.

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