“Jezebel’s Daughter,” by Wilkie Collins: Murder and mystery the old-fashioned way

No one today writes crime novels the way Wilkie Collins did, nor should they.

Collins, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, is best known for atmospheric works such as “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White,” but he wrote many, many more novels than those two. When I find myself in the mood for a good old-fashioned mystery yarn, Wilkie Collins fits the bill.

The novels noted  above are classics of what was called in the day “sensational literature,” tales of mystery, crime and suspense, with a tinge of a supernatural aura. They are great fun to read, and if you enjoy them you’ll be happy to know that a great deal of Wilkie Collins’ work can be found online in digital form.

One such is “Jezebel’s Daughter,” the story of a woman carrying a bad reputation and a substantial debt, who hopes to see her daughter make a solid marriage. The book is not a whodunit; you will figure out the crimes quickly enough and have your suspicions confirmed right away. You likely will, however, keep turning pages to find out who might be the next victim or whether justice can prevail.

Sure, the plot depends upon some heavy coincidences. There is a smattering of anti-semitism. You occasionally will marvel at how the characters in this novel can fail to put together a couple of simple clues.

Despite all that, as I read Collins’ rather smooth prose I imagined a stellar cast of actors moving through the book: Anjelica Huston, Hugh Laurie, Michael Caine, Cary Elwes, Keira Knightley,  Wynona Ryder, John Cleese, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett. The novel became very much an old-fashioned black-and-white movie inside my skull, with an orchestral score and the ominous trilling of violins at all the right moments.

I look forward to downloading some more Wilkie Collins. His books are great companions late at night, in a quiet house, perhaps with rain drumming on the panes and the occasional flash of lightning and growl of thunder.

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