Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Woman in White: World's first mystery novel?

Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868), widely considered the first detective novel in English, may be better known to crime readers, but it's The Woman in White (1859-60) that's shaping up as a hell of a mystery.

Mystery saturates the most ordinary objects and seemingly ordinary persons in the opening chapters, and that's before the main plot has begun to take shape. Physical appearance turns out not to be what is seems, for one. And who is the mysterious woman in white?

Here's one of the novel's first sentences:
"But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged servant of the long purse..."
There's some funny stuff, too:
"`Never mind,' says the golden barbarian of a Papa, `never mind about his genius, Mr. Pesca. We don't want genius in this country, unless it is accompanied by respectability.'"
and
"The driver was evidently discomposed by the lateness of my arrival. He was in that state of highly-respectful sulkiness which is peculiar to English servants."
and
"Some of us rush through life; and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life."
If this reminds you of Charles Dickens, it's no surprise. Dickens and Collins were friends and occasional collaborators (the two were so close that Collins was called "the Dickensian Ampersand," according to one source), and The Woman in White appeared initially as a serial in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. But it's sentences like this that lend the book its aura of mystery even before the mystery begins:
"To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model ... was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognize yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream."
(Here's the beginning of a discussion of Collins' contributions to crime fiction.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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58 Comments:

Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I remember reading somewhere that _The Woman in White_ was the first mystery novel and that _The Moonstone_ was the first police procedural.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Barbara said...

I love TWIW, the Count is a wonderful creation. Laura is a bet wet but Marian is wonderful - and I love the description of her too. I also like the way the narrative is presented as 'evidence', with all the different narrators giving their side of the story to convince the reader of the truth (I think it mentions this somewhere at the beginning.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I remember reading that "The Moonstone" was the first novel to include a police detective as a regular character. I had read less about "The Woman in White," though, perhaps because it's less discussed in the crime-fiction circles in which I move. As you can tell, I think it's a hell of a book so far, and it has me thinking about what "mystery" means as a category.

(Of course, Collins was English, and I don't think the English have ever used the term "mystery" until recently, if at all.)

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Barbara. I suspect that the presentation of the narrative as evidence has something to do with Wilkie Collins' legal training. I wonder if he was among the first to use this technique.

I agree with you about Laura and Marian (the last bit I quoted in my comment is from Walter's description of her. Collins' portrayal of Walter's jumbled and contradictory impressions is a superb piece of writing), and I have not yet met the count.

This sort of thing could give the epithet "Victorian" a good name.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Kerrie said...

I've always thought TWIW was labelled as the first mystery novel, but then you'd have to say none of the Charles Dickens titles were, and they mostly contain mysteries.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, my favorite Dickens is "The Pickwick Papers," which is no mystery, so I can duck that question. Sure, there's mystery at the heart of "Great Expectations," but as much as there is in Collins? I'll know in a few hundred pages.

Whatever conclusion I reach, though, I expect that the lines between mystery novel and non-mystery novel is not sharp in the case of Dickens and Collins, especially since the two men were so close.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

There's a murder in the last part of Dicken's _Bleak House_, and some time is spent in the novel with the police officer who is trying to solve the case.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

My wife found Woman in White quite fascinating. Alas, I've never read it myself.

November 15, 2010  
Anonymous Jerry House said...

TWIW is still a fantastic read today and Count Fosco remains one of the oiliest villains around. (Sidney Greenstreet played him to perfection in the film.) Was it the first mystery novel? Who knows? It all depends on one's definition, and I'd much rather enjoy books than try to pin them down with definitions.

Other contenders include (of course) The Moonstone, Caleb Williams, the novels of Charles Brockden Brown, The House of Seven Gables, books by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, as well as many of the early Gothics and proto-Gothics. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, and there's always Edwin Drood -- unread by me -- which would have been a full-blown mystery had Dickens completed it, from what I read.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, listen to your wife. Preserve domestic harmony, and read the book.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jerry, since I made the post, I've discovered another claim TWIW has to mystery credentials: Collins frequently uses the words mystery and mysterious for landscapes and people. One character describes another as "a walking mystery," for example.

So, while I'd also rather read a book than define it, it's interesting to see how a number of the genres that we distinguish now may have common origins. And now I'll shut up, stop theorizing, and resume reading.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

Surprisingly, no one has mention Poe yet.

Personally, I believe you could trace mysteries to the beginnings of fiction. Certainly Homer was a thriller writer.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that no one has mentioned Poe because everybody takes him for granted as the modern founder of so many different varieties of popular fiction. I singled out Collins as possibly having written the first mystery novel, and Poe did not write much in the way of longer fiction.

I've written elsewhere on Detectives Beyond Borders about Poe's wide-ranging founding contributions to crime fiction. As for mystery and crime fiction's ancient roots, do a search on this blog for "proto-detectives." It's a favorite subject of mine, and the earliest example I cite is considerably older than Homer.

November 15, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

I have read the Edwin Drood fragment, and I concur. It definitely would have been a mystery beyond question, or at least that's the impression I got from what little there is of it.

November 16, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I had posted in another discussion on the blog about novels which had a mystery or murder component, that "The Woman in White," was considered the first (or one of the first mysteries), published in 1859, and "The Moonstone," published in 1868, was considered the first detective novel.

I actually had not read the books, but saw a PBS movie version of "The Woman in White," which was fun.

But seeing the actual writing here leads me to think I should read the book. These sentences (and the humor) are too good to pass up.

Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841, has been considered the first detective story, though the word "detective" may not have existed then.

One outstanding point about that story is that in my memory, it was the earliest locked-room mystery, which elevates it in my book.

And I think that story also fulfilled a lot of other "firsts," for its time.

Something else to reread.

November 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, who knows? "The Woman in White" may lead me to "Edwin Drood" and give me a chance to see whether Dickens could have been a good crime writer, had he chosen to focus his efforts on that area.

November 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, the only thing that has tried my patience in "The Woman in White" is how Collins deals with love. That's where things get a bit long-winded -- what we might dismiss as Victorian.

Two comments above yours, I linked to a post in which I discussed all the crime-fiction firsts with which Poe is credited, and one I'm not sure he's been given credit for.

November 16, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

I vaguely remember reading THE MOONSTONE a million years ago, but I don't think I've ever read THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Been reading a lot lately on various blogs about TWIW and so I think, the time has come to acquaint myself if, indeed, I haven't done so already. The old memory ain't what it used to be. In the meantime I picked up an used copy of THE HIGHWAYMAN AND MR. DICKENS A Secret Victorian Journal Attributed to Wilkie Collins. Discovered and Edited by William J. Palmer. 2nd in a series I'd never heard of before. First book: THE DETECTIVE AND MR. DICKENS.
Sound intriguing? It does to me.

November 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It could be worth a look now that I'm getting interested in Collins and Dickens. Thanks.

November 16, 2010  
Anonymous chelsea said...

Yvette, what a find! Sounds interesting.

I must read TWIW. I enjoyed the PBS/BBC film on dvd, but would love to see the classic with Sydney Greenstreet. Alas, my library does not have it.

So it's time for the book.

I'm not sure what is wrong with Collins' view of love. I'm sure it was Victorian. That was the period in which he lived and wrote.

But doesn't all's well that ends well in that book? (Not to be a spoiler)

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...how Collins deals with love. That's where things get a bit long-winded..."

Sheesh! What a hard-boiled mug you are, Peter. That's what comes from reading too much Dashiell Hammett.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Here's a link to a post about "Hide and Seek," by Wilkie Collins, published in the 1850s. It was a bit of a mystery.

http://www.wilkie-collins.info/books_hide_seek.htm

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I talk too long and too much, but young Walter Hartright on love makes me seem postively laconic.

In the time it took him to reveal the passion -- nay, but why mince words for this tenderest yet cruelest of emotions; let me speak with the unvarnished truth of a poor but honest Englishmen and call it that other than which it cannot be, yes, love -- he had developed for Laura, they could have settled down and raised a family and become subjects of a weighty novel of their own.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chelsea, thanks for the comment. I can't tell whether all ends well because I'm quite a way from the end.

There is nothing wrong with Collins' view of love. I was poking gentle fun at the Victorian tendency to wordiness.

I have read that Dickens tended to be wordy because he was paid by the word. I wonder if his feelings changed when he was on the paying end. (TWIW appeared first in Dickens' own magazine.)

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, that's a nice looking "Hide and Seek" page. The praise from Dickens is interesting, as is the note that the Crimean War might have affected the book's public reception. And the novel's title is, of course, redolent of mystery.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, Victorians were wordy. Whatever could be said in 20 words, they took a few hundred to say.

I bet grocery lists were done the same way.

Also, I discovered that Dickens and Collins co-wrote several short stories and plays together; that's up at Wikipedia's entry on Collins.

And my library system lists several books under Collins' name, so if I were to go on a roll with his books, they're there.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Victorians were wordy. Whatever could be said in 20 words, they took a few hundred to say."

That's because writers like Dickens were paid by the word; just like my beloved 1920s Black Mask writers.

So how come I love them and loathe Dickens...? Maybe because it is obvious Dickens was paid by the word? Trying to wring every last tuppence out of a story while Hammett et al (with the possible exception of perfectionist Chandler) cranked them out, collected the dough, and were working on the next one(s) at the same time.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"...why mince words for this tenderest yet cruelest of emotions; let me speak with the unvarnished truth of a poor but honest Englishmen and call it that other than which it cannot be, yes, love..."

You may scoff, Peter, but that's the humid kind of stuff we dames still like to hear now and then. Well, maybe not in those exact words. Those sweet nothings that are right up there with foreplay, which poor Laura probably didn't know anything about until after she got married.

As in the stuff of bad fiction/any kind of talk show:

Her: "You never tell me you love me."
Him: "You know I love you."
Her: "Well, I'd still like to hear you say so now and again."
Him: "I told you I loved you on our anniversary."
Her: "That was 7 months ago!"
etc. etc.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

If readers wish to move on to more Wilkie Collins after The Woman in White and The Moonstone I would like to suggest Armadale, 1866.

I think readers will find elements of this novel more like what we expect when we read modern and contemporary crime fiction: a wicked femme fatale--Lydia Gwilt--yeah, great name for a bad dame. With the now standard plot points of drug addiction, greed for money, poison, espionage, adultery/bigamy, and, of course, murder.

If the vaporish ladies of TWIW and TM leave you a bit nonplussed, give Lydia Gwilt a spin. The kind of woman who put the Pre-Raphaelite males in a swoon.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, if Victorians wrote out grocery lists the way they wrote novels, I hope their grocers were open late. It would have taken shoppers a long time to get through lists like that.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe because it is obvious Dickens was paid by the word?

Elisabeth, that's why I wondered how Dickens felt when he had to pay by the word rather than being paid.

You may have noticed that I reread another Hammett story yesterday, "The $106,000 Blood Money." You'll have noticed, of course, that the most laconic of the Continental operatives was Canadian.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, maybe not in those exact words. Those sweet nothings that are right up there with foreplay,

Elisabeth:

Not in those exact words is right, though I thank you for the compliment. If Victorians had sex the way they wrote novels, both parties would have been too pooped by the foreplay to proceed to the main act.

November 17, 2010  
Anonymous chelsea said...

Actually, Collins' "Hide and Seek" was dedicated to Dickens.

This discussion is reminding me that I haven't read any Dickens in so many years, and now I'm torn about revisiting any of his books or not.

I think I'm with Elizabeth on this, but my curiosity is getting the better of me, although I don't want to read about cruel orphanages, child labor, debtors' prison, etc.

Armadale sounds interesting.

What are the Black Masks of the 1920s?

And, yes, the grocery lists of the Victorian age--I can just imagine a description of a loaf of bread going on for paragraphs.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I had not heard of Armadale. Thanks. And you're right. Lydia Gwilt is a great name. It would not surprise me if the creator of Walter Hartright had had concocted a portmanteau of guilt and wilt.

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chelsea, if you want to read some lighter Dickens, try "The Pickwick Papers."

November 17, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

The mystery tradition goes back centuries, I think, but in different forms.

It always contains an element of the supernatural... or at least phenomena that seem to be other worldly... ghosts, inexplicable events, psychotropic drugs.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a seasonal example, always worth reading at Christmas time.

I always have to remind myself when reading Dickens that he was a highly superstitious person and that the power of his writing comes for actual, deep-seated fears.

His ghost stories are truly frightening because they are formed in such a strong imagination.

"The Signal Box" is very worth reading, if you have the nerve.

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read almost no ghost stories, but a few contemporary crime writers touch on the supernatural. Stuart Neville does brilliant things with ghosts in The Ghosts of Belfast, for instance, though I'm not sure whether the book is available to you under that title, or whether the edition you'd get is called The Twelve.

And there's a collection of short stories by contemporary Irish crime writers based on Irish mythology called Requiems for the Departed. Some of these stories veer toward the mysterious, if not outright into the supernatural.

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I may try "Pickwick Papers," certainly well-known enough.

What are the "Black Mask" stories?
New to me.

Chelsea twas I who accidentally typed that late at night. I must have "woken up to a Chelsea morning."

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Black Mask was the pre-eminent magazine for hard-boiled crime fiction in the 1920s and '30s. It was so prominent that one refers today to a Black Mask school and Black Mask stories.

The leading Black Mask writers were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Other included Raoul Whitfield, Paul Cain and Erle Stanley Gardner (yep, the Perry Mason guy).

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Kathy and Chelsea, there are a number of period crime fiction anthologies that include stories by various Black Mask writers.

The recent publication of The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories might be a good place to start if you want to read some of the authors Peter mentioned (thank you, Peter). In addition to Black Mask contributors Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and Whitfield, I highly recommend Frederick Nebel and Horace McCoy.

This book publishes the original text of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon as it appeared in serialization in the magazine, before it was edited by Hammett and Knopf for publication as a novel. More info about this book here.

The word "noir" in relation to this book and the Black Mask writers is only true of some if the contents. It's an over- and misused word as has been noted before on this blog.

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, thanks for mentioning that new collection of Black Mask stories. I was thinking of looking into it myself.

"What is the defintion of noir?" became a catch phrase and part of a much-loved game at Noircon that expressed the good-humored exasperation some people feel with the question. Someone in the audience would ask, "What is the definition of noir?" to which the panelist would reply, "Fuck you!"

The favorite instance came when Megan Abbott twitted fellow panelist Anthony Neil Smith with the question, to which he replied, "Fuck you, Megan." Gales of laughter ensued.

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anita said...

TWIW is one of my favorite books. Don't take that crap the BBC tried to pass off as a good adaptation. It contains a huge error of law right from the get-go: if Marian and Laura have the same father, why isn't Marian, the elder, inheriting, rather than the younger Laura? Sheeesh! And throw Catherine into the mix, and they made a complete mess of it. Sure, it's pretty...

Once you've been spell-bound by the book, Marian and Count Fosco in particular, no adaptation will do, except perhaps for the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber production (I kid you not. Saw it in the West End in 2004, and decided I had to read the book.)

On a walking tour in London, I learned that Collins told Dickens one day that he was thinking of writing a story about sisters. Dickens told him to go home and write it, and TWIW was born. Wish it were that easy!

Enjoy the read, y'all!

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous chelsea said...

Thanks for this information on "Black Mask."

I cut my mystery reader's teeth on Perry Mason, along with Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes...a bit later with Hercule Poirot.

And this year, due to this blog, I read "The Maltese Falcon," and enjoyed the writing style.

Then international crime fiction grabbed me for months and still hasn't let go.

I'll try to find that Black Lizard book in the library.

I hope during the holidays to catch up.

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anita, did the BBC adaptation tinker with characters' parentage?

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Chelsea, there will always be good crime fiction there for the reading -- too much for you to catch up with over the holidays, but you could have fun trying.

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

There I go again saying "Chelsea" instead of "Kathy D."; perhaps this means I must read a mystery set in Chelsea.

Or else sign off.

November 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I found a reference to a mystery set in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.

November 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anita said...

Peter,
Yes, they did (change characters' parentage), and it's really important to the plot. Pissed me off. From what I can find, there has never been an adaptation that got the story quite right. Probably because it needs the Pride and Prejudice treatment of old, not these Reader's Digest productions they do now. Sad, sad, sad.

Can't wait to hear your final verdict. It's very Victorian, which isn't either of our usual styles, but something about it captured me. I hope it does you too.

November 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why the deuce would anyone change the parentage? Maybe I'll watch that adaptation after I've finished the novel.

The Woman in White is not my usual style, but I have very much enjoyed the humor and the uncertainty of Hartright's narration. Collins knew how to create an atmosphere of mystery.

November 19, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

It's just a euphemism, catching up over the holidays.

I know I will never catch up with good mystery reading.

It's like bailing water out of a rowboat, the more you bail out, the more water comes in.

As I type, books are being written, published, shipped, atocked ins tores or libraries.

So, perhaps I'll make a dent in my TBR pile and the reserves at the library.

November 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not a bad way to bail, I'd say. It's a pleasant thrill not to know which book to read next.

My situation now is that I've just finished a book so good (Peter Temple's An Iron Rose) that I'm afraid of a letdown.

November 21, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I hate post-good-book slump. I had it big-time after I finished "Gunshot Road." I had to wait awhile before starting a new book, as I knew it wouldn't be or well-written.

Another aspect: After reading a book with a very violent conclusion, based on real circumstances that do occur in a certain country, I had to find a distraction.

I needed a transitional book: Vandy Symon's "Containment" came in handy then, was witty enough and had no weight of the world in it.

Then Garry Disher's "Blood Moon," which was a straight-forward, good read.

But then I needed a one-day vacation, a quick, witty book and read the first one with Inspector Montalbano. That did it, just what I needed then.

Perhaps one of his or a Sjowall/Wahloo would work.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, one thing I sometimes do after I've read a superlatively good book is read two books at once, a few chapters at a time of each.

November 22, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I think that I tried (and failed) to post a comment here.

In any case, this is the link...
"http://widgetinghour.blogspot.com/2010/11/victoriana.html"

I still remember the heart-stopping effect reading Wilkie Collins had. He was such a gifted writer.

November 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And now that I'm back home, I can post that link in handly, clickable form. Thanks.

November 25, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

TYVM.

I always think of Pushkin as well.

"The Queen of Spades" is so well written and the film is a gem.

Really, Collins fits well within the horror genre.

I was a great fan of ghost stories once. Just goes to show how a 16 year old can take everything on the chin.

November 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read some Pushkin, but briefly, inattentively, and long ago. But one item in my recent reading similarly fits into two genres or sub-genres.

Someone wrote that Fantômas bridges a gap between gothic sensation novels and modern books about serial killers. That's not quite right; he kills ruthlessly, but only as a means to other ends. But the description is apt in that the novel keeps the thrills coming in the old sensational manner, and also features a criminal suprisingly chilling and modern for a character who first appeared in 1911.

November 25, 2010  

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