Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
‘I will tell you how I see it. Every reader who picks up the book, finding it unfinished, can spend their time guessing what the ending should be. And they’ll tell their friends to buy a copy and do the same, so it can be argued.’
Matthew Pearl: The Last Dickens
“Better that the world never knows who killed Edwin Drood – or indeed, if Edwin Drood is dead… than a lesser mind pick up the Master’s fallen pen.”
Dan Simmons: Drood
Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an endearing mystery. Left unfinished at the time of the authors death in 1870, the incomplete book has fascinated readers and authors alike who have all strove to resolve the mystery of the missing (murdered?) Edwin Drood. The book had long been on my wishlist and this year I read it during the Charles Dickens month celebrated in the month of January.
The story is of a young couple, Edwin and Rosa, who though to wed shortly have discovered that they do not really understand each other. Combined with this is Edwin’s young uncle John’s (Ned and Jack to each other) passion for Rosa of which Edwin is totally unaware. The entry of a brother-sister duo, Neville and Helena, further strains the relationship between the couple as Neville falls in love with Rosa while Edwin is attracted towards Helena. Then one fine day Edwin disappears and suspicion falls on Neville with whom the former had had a violent quarrel only a few days prior to his disappearance.
If you have read my review of the book, you’d know that, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the book is the character of John Jasper. The opium addicted choir master who leads a double life, caught between love and hatred for his nephew, Edwin, is a masterly creation. And for long I have refused to believe (and continue to do so) the most commonly held view-point that Jasper is the murderer of Edwin.
So when I heard of two off-shoots of the book, Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens, and Dan Simmons’ Drood, I picked them eagerly hoping to read another interpretation of the events described in Dickens’ book. However, my expectations were belied.
The Last Dickens focusses on the opium thread of the original novel. Alongside it also discusses the fledgling publishing industry of America, which in the novel is very much a satellite of England. England’s other colony India too features in the novel because that’s the place where much of opium cultivation is done and conveniently Dickens’ son Francis is posted in one such district. The story starts in Bengal than moves on to Boston travels to London. and ends in horrifying finale (all fire and brimstone) in Boston.
James Osgood is a junior partner in a publishing house. The survival of the firm depends upon the publication of Dickens’ Edwin Drood. However, as copyright laws are lax in America and piracy is rampant, the firm has to keep one step ahead of unscrupulous competitors. Then even as the sixth installment of the novel reaches Boston, Osood’s clerk who had gone to collect the papers is found murdered and the pages missing. Just as Osgood is trying to get over the shock, more horrifying news follows: Charles Dickens is dead. The novel is unfinished.
Osgood’s senior partner, J.T. Fields, a close friend of Dickens, is convinced however (and how it gladdens my heart) that the novel cannot have the rather tame ending of Jasper killing Edwin and that somewhere Dickens must have left clues as to how the novel was to end. He asks Osgood to travel to England and collect all material available as to the ending of the book which they can publish exclusively and save their firm.
Excited at this, Osgood leaves for England in the company of Rebecca Sand, a young woman employee in his office and sister of the murdered clerk. Their adventures take them to the literary haunts as well as the underbelly of London. And in the midst of their adventures, they conveniently (and to the total non-surprise of the reader) fall in love though Rebecca is a divorced working woman and not a ‘young, virginal, Dickens-perfect‘ heroine who has the tendency to make Wilkie Collins ‘strangle her immediately.’
This acrid tongue of Wilkie Collins is the strongest point of Dan Simmons’ Drood. The author of such fascinating tales such as The Woman in White describes the Inimitable (as he disparagingly calls Dickens) the way only a close companion (and closet competitor) can. Not for him is Dickens the literary giant of Victorian England. Instead Collins presents an egotistical giant who wants to control everybody round him. However Collins is an unreliable narrator and the more he tries to dig a pit for Dickens, the more it becomes a pit in Dothan.
Charles Dickens, shaken after the Staplehurst Railway accident in which he almost lost his life, narrates to Collins that he had seen a spectral figure by the name of Drood devouring human flesh at the time of the accident. He takes Collins to sleazy nightly haunts in search of this spectral figure. Slowly Collins finds himself questioning the sanity of Dickens even as he himself spirals further in opium addiction and corrosive jealousy of the renowned author. The novel becomes a study of the mind of a man forever doomed to remain in shadows of somebody more illustrious and famous. As an exhausted Collins confesses at the end: Charles Dickens was the literary genius and I was not.
Both the books sound exciting on paper but fail to deliver. The Last Dickens is tedious almost from the beginning while Drood is uneven. There are times when you simply cannot put the book down and then there are times when you wonder if it is ever going to end (and at 777 pages, it is one mammoth of a book). I don’t think I’ll be picking up a book by these authors anytime soon. For that matter, I don’t think I am going to pick up a Dickens too though Our Mutual Friend has been on my TBR list for quite some time.
First Line: An ancient cathedral town?
Title: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Author: Charles Dickens
Publication Details: Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983
First Published: 1870
Other Books read by the Same Author: A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities.
First Line: Neither of the young mounted policemen fancied these subdivisions of the Bagirhaut province.
Title: The Last Dickens
Author: Matthew Pearl
Publication Details: London: Vintage Books, 2010
First Published: 2009
Other Books read by the Same Author: None
First Line: My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.
Author: Dan Simmons
Publication Details: London: Quercus, 2009.
First Published: 2009
Other Books read by the Same Author: None
The books can be easily ordered online. I bought The Last Dickens from a shop at South Ex while Drood was borrowed from the college library. [823 S 53 D]. The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I borrowed from the University Library. [0111, 3M12, ME, L4].
Submitted for The Classic Double Challenge.
Also submitted for the following challenges: A-Z Titles, AZRC, Chunkster, Death by Gaslight, Find the Cover, Merely Mystery, Mount TBR, Mystery and Suspense, New Authors, Smooth Criminals, South Asian, TBR Pile, Unread Book.
Entry for letter D in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.