Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889)


A close friend of Charles Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens’ death in June 1870, William Wilkie Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. But after his death, his reputation declined as Dickens’ bloomed. Now, Collins is being given more critical and popular attention than he has received for 50 years. Most of his books are in print, and all are now in e-text. He is studied widely; new film, television, and radio versions of some of his books have been made; and all of his letters have been published. However, there is still much to be discovered about this superstar of Victorian fiction. Born in Marylebone, London in 1824, Collins’ family enrolled him at the Maida Hill Academy in 1835, but then took him to France and Italy with them between 1836 and 1838. Returning to England, Collins attended Cole’s boarding school, and completed his education in 1841, after which he was apprenticed to the tea merchants Antrobus & Co. in the Strand. In 1846, Collins became a law student at Lincoln’s Inn, and was called to the bar in 1851, although he never practised. It was in 1848, a year after the death of his father, that he published his first book, ‘The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A’., to good reviews. The 1860s saw Collins’ creative high-point, and it was during this decade that he achieved fame and critical acclaim, with his four major novels, The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The Moonstone, is seen by many as the first true detective novel T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels …” in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe. (Source: Goodreads)

His early novel The Woman in White (1860) deals effectively with issues relating the women’s roles and class issues in Victorian society, as well as establishing a fine set of villains and innocent, female victims. It shares with The Moonstone (1868) an unusual narrative structure, somewhat resembling an epistolary novel, in which different portions of the book have different narrators, each with a very distinct narrative voice. Many of Collins’s works are available from Project Gutenberg. (Source: Golden Age of Detection Wiki).

Further reading:

While I was collecting information on Wilkie Collins I came across this article at The Passing Tramp, here. The short story, “Who Killed Zebedee?”, immediately appealed to me.

Collins_Little_Novels_3From Wikipedia: “Who Killed Zebedee?” is a short detective story by Wilkie Collins, first published under the alternate title “The Policeman & The Cook” in serial form in 1881. A young wife is convinced that, while sleepwalking, she has murdered her own husband, John Zebedee. Together, a young constable and the cook from the couple’s final lodgings attempt to uncover the truth.

Plot summary: “Who Killed Zebedee?” opens with a direct address to the readers by an otherwise unnamed narrator. On his deathbed, our narrator, a Roman Catholic, feels compelled to make a confession to the readers about his involvement in an unsolved murder case back when he was still a young police constable in London. The recounting of the death of Zebedee opens with a distraught young woman, Priscilla Thurlby, the cook at the Zebedee’s boarding house, rushing into the police station with a blood-curdling scream. Priscilla informs the skeptical assembly that, “A young woman has murdered her husband in the night!” While the police initially believe the young woman to be intoxicated, they eventually visit the boarding house to find that a young, married man has been stabbed in the back with a knife. The police immediately begin an inspection of the scene of the crime. The lodgers of the boarding house are interviewed, all of whom prove to be eccentric, however, during the interviews, the young constable and his fellow officers become increasingly suspicious of Mr. Deluc, a smarmy cigar agent, who had made repeated amorous advances towards Mrs. Zebedee. Unfortunately, this suspicion is confounded by Mrs. Zebedee, who is positive she has killed her husband in her sleep. A sleepwalker, Mrs. Zebedee had read a story about a young woman who had murdered her husband in her sleep before falling asleep on the night her husband was murdered. The police suspect the real answer might hinge on the half-inscribed knife, “To John Zebedee-“ still wedged in Zebedee’s back, but a preliminary search reveals nothing.

Literary significance: While “Who Killed Zebedee?” is largely classified as a melodrama, it introduced some now-iconic elements of modern detective fiction. Here, as in his more famous novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White, Collins uses the “least likely person” motif, a popular element in many modern-day detective novels. Meanwhile, 20th century noir novels are hardly complete without the introduction of a femme fatale bursting through the detective’s door screaming for help or an heroically flawed detective tortured over the duplicity of his lady love.

Picture: Title page to the first edition in book form (vol 3 contained Who Killed Zebedee? and three other works)


  • Who Killed Zebedee? by Wiklie Collins. Hesperus Press Ltd; New edition, 2002. ISBN-13: 978-1843910190.
  • Mr. Policeman and the Cook (‘Who Killed Zebedee?‘) by Wilkie Collins. Cullen Press, 2016. Paperback and Kindle edition. ISBN-13: 978-1447470854.
  • My edition: Complete Works of Wilkie Collins. Delphi Classics, 2011.  Kindle and epub.

As Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp correctly points out, in the link above, “Who Killed Zebedee?” seems to have popped straight out of the pages of a Golden Age short story collection, yet amazingly it was published in 1881. Even if its solution emerges somewhat accidentally, this is just a minor flaw in a highly entertaining and interesting story. After all, Collins provides us with a surprisingly ambivalent ending, which turns out being quite modern. I’m glad I read it.

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