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Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life
By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Wilkie Collins: A Brief Life is the newest volume in the series of the same name by popular historian Peter Ackroyd, whose London: The Biography I'm a huge fan of; as befitting its name, this particular series is an attempt to present informative and entertaining biographies of various second-tier-famous figures throughout history (past volumes include people like Chaucer and J.M.W. Turner), but in a succinct and fast-moving style within a manuscript that I'm guessing is right around 50,000 words, or barely the minimum length of the smallest novels on the market. And Collins is a natural subject for such a series; although known at his height as the second most popular author of Victorian England (beaten only by his good friend and theatrical collaborator Charles Dickens), the fact is that Collins didn't have an interesting enough life to justify one of those 700-page barnburner bios like you see of other Victorian novelists, a man certainly with his notorious touches (he didn't believe in monogamous marriage, and carried on essentially a polyamorous relationship with two different women for decades), but who by and large spent most of his adult life simply writing and then visiting southern Europe, writing and then visiting southern Europe, like so many of his upper-middle-class British Empire peers. Highly worthwhile as a primer to why the largely forgotten Collins is such an important part of English-language literary history (among other accolades, he wrote Britain's very first detective novel, and virtually invented the genre known at the time as "sensation stories," which in the 20th century morphed into the crime and noir genres we know today), this is a nearly perfect length for getting to know the man without him overstaying his welcome, and comes strongly recommended to anyone interested in the subject.
Out of 10: 9.0