Elly Griffiths was born in London, studied English at King's College London and worked in publishing for 15 years. She wrote her first book (The Italian Quarter, published under her real name, Domenica de Rosa) when she was on maternity leave. Three other books followed, all on Italian themes. She was inspired to write about forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway when her husband gave up a city job to retrain as an archaeologist. Her agent told her she needed a 'crime name' so she became Elly Griffiths. The first Ruth book, The Crossing Places, was shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year and won the Mary Higgins Clark award. The latest book in the series is Dying Fall, published in January 2013. Elly lives near Brighton with her husband and two children. Here she writes about Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone.
Elly Griffiths on The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone is so often hailed as the first detective story that it's hard to remember that the crime at the centre of the book is not a murder but a theft. The trappings that have become so familiar to the murder mystery are all there: the grand and isolated house, seething with the repressed emotions of both servants and guests; blackmail; an ancient curse; the tell-tale stains upon the clothes. That Wilkie Collins creates such a doom-laden and portentous atmosphere around what seems to be a simple case of robbery is down to a sort of literary sleight-of-hand. The victim is not a beautiful woman but an equally lovely and ill-fated diamond and the stains are of paint, not blood. But the effect is the same. As soon as Wilkie Collins introduces us to the locale, the wonderfully evocative Shivering Sand, we know that we are dealing with something beyond mere smash-and-grab.
The last of the evening light was fading away; and all over the place there hung a still and awful calm... The inner sea lay lost and dim, without a breath of wind to stir it. Patches of nasty ooze floated, yellow-white on the dead surface of the water.
It's all there in a few lines: fading, awful, lost, dead. It's only the phrase 'nasty ooze' that reminds us that we're sharing the perspective of family retainer Gabriel Betteredge. And this is another of the novel's felicities - the multiple voices. The story is told by (amongst others) Betteredge, the family solicitor, the main suspect and the detective. The device means that not only do we see events through the narrators' eyes but, to some extent, we also share their values. The loss of the diamond is so much more devastating when described by the faithful Betteredge. And what could be better than to have a key scene witnessed by the sweetly vile Miss Clack, for whom even eavesdropping is a sacred duty? 'A martyrdom was before me. In justice to myself I noiselessly arranged the curtains...'
Sergeant Cuff can lay claim to being the first policeman hero. He is both brilliant and eccentric – two characteristics we have come to expect in our detectives. 'His walk was soft; his voice was melancholy... He might have been a parson or an undertaker, or anything you like, except what he really was.' Only Collins could describe someone's walk as soft. Cuff is also the first fictional policeman to conduct anything like a forensic investigation, when he examines the household's night-clothes for spatters of paint. This was undoubtedly influenced by the real-life Road Hill House murder, where the detective (Mr Whicher as in The Suspicions of...) caused a scandal by examining the family's linen. Except that Whicher, of course, was searching for spatters of blood.
Cuff is such a wonderful creation that, again, it is a shock to realize that he retires halfway through the book, with the case still unsolved. Lady Verinder employs him at her own expense but then, when his investigations bring him uncomfortably close to the truth, dismisses him. This seems impossibly haphazard to our eyes but was, in fact, how Scotland Yard worked at the time. Yet, like all the detectives that come after him, Cuff is gifted with uncanny powers of deduction. He guesses the identity of the diamond thief and writes the name in a sealed note to be opened by Betteredge. His discussions with Betteredge, as the latter strains to follow the detective's enigmatic clues, mimics the relationship between crime writer and reader. In The Moonstone Wilkie Collins lays down the rules for the genre - the clues are all there, if you can follow them. The chase is on. As Betteredge describes it:
Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach... and a nasty thumping at the top of your head? It will lay hold of you... I call it the detective-fever and I caught it in the company of Sergeant Cuff.
Cuff casts a long shadow. It was not until after my first crime novel was published that I realized that it featured a character called Sergeant Clough. The novel has sometimes been praised for its descriptions of isolated marshland on the Norfolk coast. I know that this sense of a doomed landscape comes, not just from modern-day archaeologists like Francis Prior, but from Wilkie Collins and his terrible, wonderful Shivering Sands. Yet it was a quotation from a lesser-known (but equally brilliant) Wilkie Collins book that stayed with me when I was writing The Crossing Places. In No Name, the story of sisters fighting for their inheritance, he writes:
Nothing in the world is hidden forever. Sand turns traitor, and betrays the footstep that has passed over it; water gives back to the tell-tale surface the body that has been drowned...
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]