I’ve had this on my shelves for a couple of years, just waiting for me to get ready to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. I said in my review of that book that I didn’t recommend it except for die hard Dickens fans and the like – but I was wrong. Everyone should read The Mystery of Edwin Drood just to read this one afterwards since this book makes more sense if you have read Dickens’ novel. If you have read Dickens’, you will get the hints in Drood – in fact, Drood then reads as a introduction to how an author gathers inspiration. Simmons have taken parts from The Mystery of Edwin Drood and then used them in this book in the most clever way. One small example is how in the Dickens novel, there’s a girl nicknamed Pussy and a lawyer who thinks Pussy is a cat. Of course, Simmons then has a cat named Pussy. Dickens has one of the main characters be a opium addict – in Drood (at least) one of Dickens’ best friends is a opium addict and suffers terrible consequences because of it. John Jasper’s secret visit to the crypt is here, we have Deputy and so much more. I love this aspect of it – how you can imagine Dickens living his life and seeing inspiration all around him.
But I digress. I haven’t even started talking about what’s the book about yet. This is the story of the last few years of Charles Dickens’ life and what he did after being in a terrible railway accident in 1865 and till his death in 1870. The story is told by his friend, the author Wilkie Collins. Wilkie experienced firsthand much of what Dickens did and experienced in those last years – and Dickens was busy. Not only with his work but also with various investigations and experiences in the less familiar parts of London, the part where the opium addicts frequent, the parts where the lowest classes fight and struggle for survival each and every day.
Dickens was not an opium-user – but at the railway accident, he met a man, a certain personage named Drood. This Drood hunted the rest of Dickens’ life and as a expert mesmerizer, Drood made Dickens do what he bid. Dickens was extremely fascinated by Drood in the beginning but realized later that Drood was a murderer, a man so versed in the ancient Egyptian beliefs that he was able to resurrect himself and was more an apparition than a man.
Because of Dickens’ connection to Drood, Wilkie is slowly dragged into this as well and experiences first hand a nasty Egyptian ritual involving a scarab. Wilkie becomes a sort of spy into Dickens’ life to inform a private detective, working desperately to catch the sinister Drood.
This is what the book is about. This is the extremely exciting story Wilkie Collins relate to us. Only thing is – Wilkie is not only an opium-user, he also self-medicate with laudanum in extremely high doses, several glasses at a time. So the question becomes – is Wilkie a reliable narrator so we can trust what he tells us about Dickens’ last years or is this rather one man’s descend into opium-induced madness? I’m still not sure.
Or maybe, it’s all something that Dickens invented – a kind of joke that got too far and was primarily fueled by Wilkie’s abuse issues and Dickens’ abilities as a master mesmerizer.
This is also a book about jealousy. There’s no doubt that both in their time and in our time, Dickens is the greater novelist. I haven’t read anything by Wilkie Collins yet so I don’t know if it’s fair but both back then and now, Dickens is the best one in the eyes of the public. And we love to read his books. We love to read about his characters. They are almost real. And Wilkie was – at least according to Simmons – very jealous because of this. And – for most of the book – doesn’t think it’s fair. (I do think that this book also would benefit for having read a couple of Wilkie Collins novels…)
There’s no doubt that Simmons is a master writer. The way he handles all these various possible ways to read the book, all the research he has in this without at any point making it boring or like someone is telling us something because we need to know to understand what’s coming. It’s marvelous. And I have a sneaking suspicion that if you look at how Dickens or Collins tell their stories and then compare it to Simmons, you will find similarities that are not just coincidences.
I love this quote about how Dickens’ write: ‘pulling characters out of the air (often based willy-billy on people in his own life) without a thought as to how they might serve the central purpose, mixing in a plethora of random ideas, having his characters wander off into incidental occurrences and unimportant side-plots having nothing to do with the overriding idea, and often beginning his story in mid-flight /…/’. (p. 264)
My favorite quote though, is one that I’m not sure whether to attribute to Dickens or to Simmons. The aging Dickens, after having lost so many of his family and friends, says at one point: ‘/…/ my heart has become a cemetery.’ (p. 578). I find this such a powerful sentence because it’s true. At some point for most of us, our hearts will become cemeteries because the ones we have loved, are dead. And what a tragedy when you reach that moment. And what a beautiful way to express it.
Now, I of course have to mention the way Simmons see the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – told from Dickens’ own lips, although not necessarily something you can trust (like so much else in this novel). But according to this, Edwin Drood is dead, murdered by John Jasper – who turns out to be his brother, and who are suffering so much from opium abuse that he has an alternate consciousness, Jasper Drood. And Jasper Drood is a master mesmerizer. As is Helena Landless and to some extent her brother Neville. But someone has mesmerized John Jasper/Jasper Drood to kill his brother – and who this person is, is never revealed by Simmons. So the mystery is intact…
In it’s way, this is a tribute to Charles Dickens. I haven’t done much research into who Dickens actually was as a person, but it seems that Simmons has and that he has worked hard on this novel to create a fair picture of Dickens. Even though Wilkie is the one telling it, and Wilkie hates Dickens for parts of the book, there’s no doubt who comes of as the most sympathetic. Despite the way Dickens treated his wife, despite his ‘secret’ mistress. But then again, we only have Wilkie’s – not necessarily very reliable – words for this, don’t we?
- Title: Drood
- Author: Dan Simmons
- Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
- Year: 2009
- Pages: 775 pages
- Stars: 5 stars out of 5
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood – the 2012 BBC adaption
- Dickens, Drood & Doctor Who
- Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (review)
- Dickens Bicentenary