The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Celebrated as the first detective novel ever written, The Moonstone takes the reader on an interesting journey following the trail of a mysterious, ancient, valuable stone that disappears the night it is bequeathed to young woman for her birthday. Rachel Verinder is wealthy, beautiful, and charming, and receives an inheritance of the famed Moonstone yellow diamond for her birthday. It is brought to her from India by a handsome gentleman, named Mr Blake. Shortly on the heels of Mr. Blake's arrival, however, a group of Indian men pretending to be acrobatic performers arrive also, and everyone knows them to be hunting for the Moonstone and not acrobats at all. Rachel and Mr. Blake begin to have feelings for each other, but Rachel's maid, Rosanna, also develops a crush on Mr. Blake. Then, at Rachel's birthday party, a bit too much is imbibed, and in the morning the Moonstone is missing from the cabinet where she'd stored it the night before. The famed detective, Sergeant Cuff, is brought in to help investigate, but after thinking he's solved the case, The Moonstone doesn't turn up. Sergeant Cuff goes into retirement, Mr. Blake disappears abroad, and Rachel enters into, and breaks off, an engagement with another eligible bachelor who was also at her birthday party. It is only a year later that the idea is put forward by a local doctor to reenact the night of the disappearance of the stone that the crime is finally solved.
I was worried that this would be a dense work of Victorian literature, but Collins has a chatty, engaging style, and the mystery is well crafted. The story doesn't lag, and you keep turning the pages, wondering what will happen next and if the Moonstone will be found from this set of clues or not. It was an enjoyable, fun, suspenseful read. My criticisms would be that I didn't love the way women were portrayed (mainly as vapid and pretty or conniving) and that racism was rather rampant against anyone non-Caucasian, but especially against the Indians. As the first detective novel written, it was really fun to see the elements incorporated that we still see in most detective novels today, and I enjoyed how so many times it seemed like it would all be solved, but then it was a dead end, and clues had to be followed in a different direction. I didn't guess the thief before the end, but was pleased with who it turned out to be. Collins definitely has a flair for the dramatic, and the ending was made for the stage. If you're looking for a great classic, this one certainly fits the bill.