NO NAME By Wilkie Collins (1862)

LATE IN LIFE Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), a chronic sufferer from gout, became addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium), one of the Victorians' favorite anodynes. Like many a drug taken in excess, laudanum produces hallucinations, and Collins' naturally febrile imagination saw to it that his figments were doozies. "For example," writes Professor J.I.M. Stewart, "when he was going to bed, he used to meet at the turn of the stair a green woman with tusk teeth and the displeasing habit of biting a piece out of his shoulder."

Although nothing so hideous as the hungry green woman appears in Collins' fiction, he wrote four great, sensation-filled novels: The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale and No Name. The first two are his most celebrated works, the one an eerie post-Gothic thriller, the other, in T.S. Eliot's words, "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels." Armadale is the contrived but diverting story of two characters both named Allan Armadale and of Lydia Gwilt, who would stop at nothing to acquire the fortune coming to one of them.

The fourth of Collins' unsurpassed melodramas is No Name. I consider it his best.

Like his other three masterpieces, No Name showcases Collins' masterly way with a plot, this one hinging on illegitimacy and disinheritance. When her parents die in quick succession, 19-year-old Magdalen Vanstone discovers that they had only just married -- as soon as they could after getting word of the death of Mr. Vanstone's long-forgotten no-good wife in America. Even more galling, Mr. Vanstone died without making a proper will. Under British law, his ample estate goes not to his (illegitimate) daughter but to Noel Vanstone, his miserly nephew, who insults Magdalen by offering her

100 as a consolation prize. She spurns the offer and ponders what to make of (1) the fact that she and Cousin Noel have never met and (2) her talent as an actress with the chameleonlike ability to impersonate women of all ages.

Determined to recover her patrimony, she decides to probe her cousin for weaknesses by sending an emissary -- herself tricked out in wig and makeup, purporting to be Miss Garth, her middle-aged governess. During an interview with Noel, Magdalen learns that he is a foolish weakling of lecherous bent. Though he is taken in by her disguise, his housekeeper, Mrs. Lecount, is not. After trying unsuccessfully to startle Magdalen into stepping out of character, Mrs. Lecount corners her on the way out. "Don't be too bold," she hisses; "don't be too clever . . . I hold you in the hollow of my hand!"

Undaunted, Magdalen acquires a dramatic coach, a money-grubbing relative of her mother named Captain Wragge. Together with the captain's gigantic, bunny-brained wife, the conspirators rename themselves Bygrave, move into Noel Vanstone's neighborhood and contrive to meet him. Magdalen's undisguised beauty quickens Noel's pulse; at the same time something about her intrigues Mrs. Lecount. That night she sits bolt upright in bed, possessed of the truth: Miss Garth, Miss Bygrave and Miss Vanstone are one and the same -- and out to bilk Mr. Noel.

Not only does Mrs. Lecount have her own designs on Noel's money; she is a jealous and prideful woman, embittered because, though she manipulates him, she does not share his life. She resolves to foil Magdalen and the Captain but must act carefully: Noel resents her influence over him and is too smitten with Magdalen to brook overt aspersions on her integrity. Before she strikes, Mrs. Lecount must have proof.

There ensues one of the craftiest cat-and-mouse games in all of literature, on a par with the fencing between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovitch in Crime and Punishment. For some 200 brilliant pages, Collins pits the Captain and his puppet, Magdalen, against Mrs. Lecount and hers, Noel. Magdalen performs flawlessly, but Mrs. L. is a resourceful fighter. She locates the real Miss Garth and writes her; the governess replies that she's never met Noel. The Captain intercepts the letter. But he has a vulnerable point in his own household: his addle-pated wife, whom he must keep away from Mrs. L. at all costs. He almost succeeds, until one bonny day the lure of a nearby beach proves too tempting. . . And so they go on, the thrusts and parries, until the reader becomes oblivious of time, of chores, almost of bodily functions.

In addition to its faultless construction, No Name is blessed with characters every bit as grotesquely memorable as Dickens' (not for nothing were the two writers friends and occasionally actors together in their own lurid plays): the oleaginous Captain, his oafish wife, the shrewish guard-dog Lecount, and poor Magdalen, who loathes the duplicity but is obsessed with recapturing what is rightfully hers. If not a stylist of the first rank, Collins always writes gracefully. And when the occasion calls for a bravura passage, he supplies it. Here is Noel Vanstone's reaction to Magdalen's flirtatiousness. He "had hitherto confined himself to bowing, simpering, and admiring Magdalen through his half-closed eyelids. There was no mistaking the sudden flutter and agitation in his manner, and the heightened color in his wizen little face. Even the reptile temperament of Noel Vanstone warmed under the influence of the sex . . . "

Melodrama used to be a catch-all genre -- long since subdivided into mysteries, romances, horror stories, war stories, Westerns and spy thrillers. Its ablest practitioner, Collins earned more than

10,000 in a single year, probably a record for writers in the 19th century. His other novels may overshadow No Name because it resists more particular labeling than melodrama, pure and simple. But never mind labels. No Name is one of those books that you can't put down but probably will anyway -- because if you don't it will be over all too soon.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.

Note on Availability: "No Name" is available in paperback editions published by Dover Books and Oxford University Press.