As a fan of the works by inimitable Charles Dickens and his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, I welcomed the publication of this book about both.
Fittingly, it’s an extremely long novel—nearly 800 pages. And it’s best to read it in short gulps, in the manner of a serial (which is the way most of those authors’ books were originally put before the public.)
In Drood, author Dan Simmons combines historical truths about the authors’ lives with scattered elements from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book left unfinished at Dickens’ death. And then Simmons invents his own mystery to weave the whole together. Unfortunately, Simmons—while a competent writer—can’t spin a yarn like either Dickens or Collins.
Collins was no second-string word-slinger, but more than once outsold Dickens. Collins, who is credited by some with inventing the mystery genre itself, wrote at least two masterpieces that still hold up today: The Moonstone and, especially, The Woman in White. Both, like Drood, are filled with supernatural elements.
Collins narrates Drood, and paints a not-so-flattering picture of his friend and collaborator Dickens. The Famous Author (whose every move seems to to demand Capital Letters) is a brilliant writer, yes, but also a selfish egotist who Collins refers to snidely as “The Inimitable.” Their unspoken rivalry—or at least Collins’ jealousy of Dickens’s greater fame--is an undercurrent throughout Drood.
Large sections of Drood follow Dickens’s growing family and fame and Collins’s growing dependence on laudanum (an opium derivative). His jealousy of Dickens’ fame, Dickens’ fascination with mesmerism, and Collins’ increasingly wild imaginings simmer into a melodramatic stew. Simmons’ handling of the historical elements of Dickens/Collins collaboration and rivalry is fascinating. If you’ve read the work of both authors, you’ll get an inside view of their creative process and uncover pieces of the artists’ lives that resonate in their fiction.
Simmons’ invented Drood plot, though, is a labyrinth that leads nowhere. That might be excused since the story is based on Dickens last, unfinished novel. But it’s deeply unsatisfying to find little resolution after all those pages.
It’s a great ride for a while, though. Is the alleged mass murderer Drood real, or a figment of Collins’s imagination? The attempts to find out occupy Dickens, Collins, and various members of the London police force for much of the book. The chase leads to rural churchyards, and—most memorably—into London’s “Undertown, home to” the destitute and drug-addled living dead. Those scenes are riveting, but the overall search for Drood, and Collins’ suspicion that Dickens too might be a murderer, veer wildly off-course. The book lost me when the fantasies—opium-induced?—expanded to long passages involving quasi-Egyptian cults, green-skinned phantoms, and insects under the skin.
Collins and Dickens (and, more recently, Neil Gaiman) have the skill to write wildly unbelievable tales of the supernatural that cajole readers into suspending their rational faculties and diving headlong into their invented worlds. But Simmons’ bizarre tale is presented in a way that doesn’t take readers with him as he scampers off down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.—Phoenix Brown