Wilkie Collins liberated the mystery story from drafty castles and clanking chains. He realized that creepier forms of terror can be found in the suburban house next door, that villains need not be one-dimensional incarnations of malignity, that harm is likelier to come from a con man than a ghoul. Along with Edgar Allan Poe, Collins created the thriller, but the Englishman may be the more influential of the two. It was his prowess as a storyteller that flung down the challenge for all subsequent mystery writers: Give readers a plot so engrossing that it snatches them right out of their mundane lives.
Peter Ackroyd’s smart, stylish book on Collins is the latest volume in a series called Ackroyd’s Brief Lives. (He has also done Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner, Newton and Poe.) More than other biographers, Ackroyd brings out the contrast between Collins’s serenity — “He was perhaps the sweetest-tempered of all the Victorian novelists” — and the poor health that dogged him for much of his life. In a way, it all started at his birth, in 1824, to an artist and his wife. A mishap with a forceps left Wilkie with a permanent bulge on his forehead.
The Collinses were comfortable, if not rich. Young Wilkie traveled to continental Europe as a child and returned as a roistering young adult. Back in London, he toiled in the office of a tea-importing firm. In 1848, he published a two-volume biography of his father, who had recently died. Far more to his liking, though, was inventing stories. After trying his hand at a historical novel set in fifth-century A.D. Rome, he gravitated to the kind of melodrama with which his name has been associated ever since: “Basil, a Story of Modern Life,” in which the title character trails a woman he first saw on an omnibus to a half-built square in north London. As Ackroyd describes it, “This is the prelude to a narrative of revenge and suffering on a sensational scale.”
Sales were encouraging enough that Collins wrote another novel, and more after that. He was good at his craft and getting better, but he was also lucky. As Ackroyd notes: “He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and when novels themselves were increasing in importance. Trollope averred that ‘we have become a novel-reading people . . . from the Prime Minister down to the last-appointed scullery maid.’ ”
Collins published “The Woman in White” in 1860, a propitious start to the decade in which he did his best work. The novel was sensational not only in content (the eponymous woman is first seen running through a London neighborhood at night, in obvious fear of being caught by pursuers), but also in its effect on the public. “The Woman in White” first came out in serial installments, and avid readers would queue up in front of the periodical’s office to wait for each new issue. When it appeared in book form, Thackeray stayed up all night reading it, and Gladstone canceled a dinner engagement because he had to know what happened.
Soon Collins was fast friends with Charles Dickens (they collaborated, not very successfully, on a play) as well as the beneficiary of a highly unusual domestic arrangement. He kept two mistresses, each in a separate household, and never married either of them — or anyone else. This flouting of Victorian morals seems to have worked remarkably well. As Ackroyd points out, after Collins’s death, one mistress tended his grave until her death, and then the other took over.
Collins’s scintillating 1860s continued with “No Name” (1862), a novel of revenge that shows him plotting at his brilliant best. Next came “Armadale” (1866), very good but with a story line so complex that Ackroyd wisely declines to summarize it. The last of the big four, “The Moonstone” (1868), may be Collins’s masterpiece. T.S. Eliot’s verdict on it — “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels” — arguably holds good to this day.
Nothing Collins wrote in the remaining two decades of his life comes close to the 1860s quartet. The pain afflicting him — gout, rheumatism, nervous tension, eye trouble and more — surely weakened his Muse, as did the laudanum (tincture of opium) he took to feel better. It was said of him that, after years of usage, he could “swallow in a single glass enough [laudanum] to kill twelve people.” With relief came hallucinations, the most lurid of which was the woman with green tusks who used to appear to him at bedtime.
Who knows what a healthy Collins might have achieved? Yet four mesmerizing novels — built on a grand scale and chock full of suspense — are an admirable record. Novels to lose yourself in, which are one of life’s greatest pleasures. You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask a prime minister or scullery maid.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
By Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday. 252 pp. $25