Andrew Taylor's crime novels include the Lydmouth Series, the Roth Trilogy and The American Boy, which was selected by the Richard and Judy Book Club. He is the only person to have won the Historical Dagger of the Crime Writers' Association twice. He has also won the John Creasey Award. His books have been widely translated. Andrew's next novel, A Stain on the Silence (Michael Joseph/Penguin), will be published in April. He reviews for the Spectator and the Independent, was a regular contributor to the late lamented literary quarterly Books and Company, and edits The Author, the quarterly journal of the Society of Authors. Here Andrew writes about Wilkie Collins's Armadale and No Name.
Andrew Taylor on Armadale and No Name by Wilkie Collins
In most histories of the crime novel, Wilkie Collins earns at least a stately nod as one of the founding fathers of the genre. In this respect, his reputation rests firmly on The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868). T.S. Eliot famously characterized The Moonstone as 'the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels', which suggests that the great poet either had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre or arrived at his critical judgements with the help of intuition. (The alternatives are not incompatible.)
It would be a pity, however, to forget that Wilkie Collins wrote other books. Chief among them are No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866). Like The Moonstone and The Woman in White, these are novels of sensation, saturated with melodrama. And there are other similarities: No Name and Armadale are just as readable as the better-known novels; and they, too, prefigure several of the trends which were later developed by crime novelists of the twentieth century.
Collins's use of sensation is in itself one example of such a trend: after the tranquil pleasures of Golden Age detective fiction, many post-war crime writers rediscovered the advantages of shocking their readers. (As the song says, 'That's entertainment'.) The choice of No Name as a title is not a confession of creative failure on the part of its author but a bald statement of Victorian fact: the novel works out the social and financial consequences for two gently nurtured girls whose illegitimacy comes to light when their father dies. Imagine how that theme both fascinated and repelled many of its contemporary readers.
Armadale includes a chilling portrait of an abortionist, and the novel's plot turns on the meaning - or the lack of it - of a dream, a subject which is as old as myth and as young as psychoanalysis. The central question of the book is whether or not a dream can foretell the future. (Collins's answer to this question is impeccably empirical: as a crime novelist should, he plays fair with the reader.)
The same novel introduces one of the earliest private investigators in fiction - James Bashwood, 'the Confidential Spy of modern times, whose business is steadily enlarging, whose Private Inquiry Offices are steadily on the increase... the necessary Detective attendant on the progress of our national civilization'. Collins is not sympathetic to the breed: Bashwood is a man 'professionally ready on the merest suspicion (if the merest suspicion paid him) to get under our beds, and to look through the gimlet holes in our doors; a man who would have been useless to his employers if he could have felt a touch of human sympathy...'
Bashwood is in fact far less likeable than Armadale's principal villain, the delicious Lydia Gwilt, forger, bigamist, husband-poisoner and laudanum addict. Lydia is a fine example of Collins's ability to create women characters whose independence of spirit and action make them worthy outposts of Victorian feminism. Others include Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White and Magdalen Vanstone in No Name. Nameless and cast adrift, Magdalen effectively reinvents herself with courage, determination and a good deal of humour. It is almost as if Collins takes a sly pleasure in subverting the stereotype of the winsome Victorian Miss. It is no coincidence that he writes more honestly about sexuality, both male and female, than Dickens, Thackeray or Trollope do.
Both No Name and Armadale demonstrate that Collins also understood how comedy could enrich a story of crime and punishment. Allingham and Sayers used a similar technique - and so do many of our best contemporary authors on both sides of the Atlantic.
Collins was fascinated by the age in which he lived and its discoveries - far more so than Trollope, Thackeray and even Dickens, none of whom entirely escaped from the lure of the past. Armadale is packed with trains and telegrams and all the state-of-the-art technological trappings of mid-Victorian Britain. Much of the final part of the story is played out in a private clinic crammed with high-tech medical aids, some of which are put to distinctly sinister uses.
Wilkie Collins is often praised - or at least noted - for his plots. In his Autobiography, for example, Trollope damns Collins's novels with faint praise: 'The construction is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction... there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing which does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy.' What nonsense. True, Collins's plots are as packed with artifice as an episode of Desperate Housewives. The elaboration is often so rococo it becomes almost a pleasure in itself. (When reading Armadale, I lost count of how many people were called Allan Armadale, let alone their reasons for receiving or adopting the name.) But the ability to elaborate is not the same as the ability to construct elegant and internally consistent plots - and plot is not Collins's forte at all. It is blindingly clear to the modern reader that what he really needed was a ruthless editor with a logical mind.
Biographers have not had an easy time with Wilkie Collins, who took care to cover at least some of his tracks. He never married, but maintained at least two mistresses and fathered several children. Like Lydia Gwilt, he was addicted to laudanum, which he took for his gout; and ghostly traces of his opiated joys and terrors appear in many of the later novels and short stories. Like Midwinter, one of the main characters in Armadale, Collins suffered from mysterious nervous ailments.
Why do Collins's novels read so well today? You need more than sex, drugs and a splash of melodrama to keep people reading your books for 130 years. I suspect that the main reason is that he understood so well the basic technique of attracting and keeping readers. In one of his letters, he takes as his literary motto an adage of the music hall - and in ten words sums up the secret of his own enduring appeal: 'Make them laugh, make them cry - and make them wait.'
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]