Collins & Sergeant Cuff

January 8: On this day in 1824, the Victorian mystery novelist Wilkie Collins was born. Though many of Collins's twenty-five novels are now little-read, his "gaslight thrillers" were once very popular, and two, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868), have not only stayed in print but grown in reputation. Critics and historians view Collins as a master of suspense and the first in English crime fiction to bring psychological depth and literary flair to tales so lurid that they would otherwise belong to the crime tabloids. Collins attributed his popularity to the old adage, 'make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait,' which he said he borrowed from the music hall. Whatever his formula, Victorian England bought out the first book edition of The Woman in White in a day, and many were soon singing "The Woman in White Waltz" and wearing "Woman in White" perfume.

 

Among Collins's many contributions to the crime genre was to make his detective-heroes more than cardboard or mere clue-hounds. In The Moonstone, the Yard's Sergeant Cuff is given steely grey eyes, a melancholic mood, and a tired, seen-it-all voice. He keeps his anti-social urges down with manners and with time after hours among his flowers: "I haven't much time to be fond of anything, . . . but when I have a moment's fondness to bestow, most times, Mr. Betteredge, the roses get it." In the following passage, the admiring narrator compares "the great Cuff" to his pompous senior officer:

Why Superintendent Seegrave should have appeared to be several sizes smaller than life, on being presented to Sergeant Cuff, I can't undertake to explain. I can only state the fact. They retired together; and remained a weary long time shut up from all mortal intrusion. When they came out, Mr. Superintendent was excited, and Mr. Sergeant was yawning.

"The Sergeant wishes to see Miss Verinder's sitting-room," says Mr. Seegrave, addressing me with great pomp and eagerness. "The Sergeant may have some questions to ask. Attend the Sergeant, if you please!"

While I was being ordered about in this way, I looked at the great Cuff. The great Cuff, on his side, looked at Superintendent Seegrave in that quietly expecting way which I have already noticed. I can't affirm that he was on the watch for his brother-officer's speedy appearance in the character of an Ass—I can only say that I strongly suspected it.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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