(This is the latest installment in Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list of this month's offerings, head on over to Barrie's blog.)
In his new novel, Drood, Dan Simmons has done for Charles Dickens what Jack Higgins did with First Gulf War and British Prime Minister John Major. Confused? Don’t be. It’s a simple novelist’s plot device.
On 7 February 1991, the Provisional IRA launched a single mortar against 10 Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister. From that real event, thriller novelist Jack Higgins wove a fictional story that sought to offer a possible explanation of how the event happened.
A similarly horrible event occurred in 1865 to Charles Dickens. On 9 June, the train on which Dickens, his “mistress,” and her mother were riding jumped a span of a bridge under repair. Dickens’ train car was the only first-class car not to be destroyed. The event scarred Dickens and he died exactly five years later. The last years of his life was marred by an increasing attention towards death and increasingly poor health. And Dickens left his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, unfinished and without any outlines or notes. That is the truth.
Or is it? If you seek shelter from the storm of modern economic tragedy in Dan Simmons’ book, you are treated with another possible explanation about the Staplehurst accident and the change in Dickens. In a wonderful conceit, the novel is narrated by none other than Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ real-life confidant and fellow writer. Collins’ main claim to fame is as the author of the first true mystery and detective novel (The Moonstone), the genre having been introduced to the world by Edgar Allan Poe.
In Simmons’ mind, Collins is writing in 1889, on his deathbed. Collins’ instructions are to keep the manuscript a secret for 125 years. That would be 2014. Guess Simmons was in a hurry. The Great Question Collins wants to answer with his manuscript (771 pages) is this: “Did...Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was lift of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens’s own childhood?” That’s quite a question. And Collins gives us quite an answer.
In Drood, the Staplehurst accident happens as it did in real life. The only difference is that there, on that scene of unimaginable horror, Dickens encounters the mysterious visage of Drood. He is a man in a large black cape, “a pale, bald scalp,” a few gray wisps of hair, a nose that consisted only of two black slits, and “small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves.” Not to be too flippant about it but it sound like Voldemort as played by Ralph Feinnes in the Harry Potter movies. Every person Drood consoles on that afternoon winds up dead.
Dickens becomes obsessed with finding Drood and drags a reluctant Collins along with him. They investigate Undertown, the subterranean crypts built by the Romans, early Christians, and populated in the late 1860s by criminals and opium eaters. Collins is a reliably efficient opium addict and takes numerous doses of laudanum daily.
During these searches for Drood, Collins is introduced to one Edwin Dickinson, a survivor of the accident and a young man whom Dickens invited to his home in Gad’s Hill for Christmas 1865. A few months later, Collins cannot find Dickinson and begins to fear that the author has done away with young Dickinson in an experiment not too unlike what the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” undertake: the murder of someone just for the experience of it. After awhile (for us, the readers, it’ll be mere days; for Wilkie, it’s months and years), Collins begins to plan the murder of Charles Dickens.
This is a big book and there are so many nuances and nods that I can’t list them all. Heck, I can’t even remember them all despite my notes. Here’s one for you. In Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood, John Jasper is the name of one of the main characters. In the new novel Drood, that same name is part of the legacy of the character Drood. If little homages like this obvious one hit me, those folks who know Dickens’ work well likely will find more.
As a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions of the writerly craft between Dickens and Collins and trust that Simmons did his research. During these years, Collins conceived and wrote The Moonstone and it’s fun to be a fly on the wall as these two authors discuss the creation of a new genre. Yes, it’s difficult for someone like me (non Dickens scholar) to know where the truth stops and the fiction begins but I can make educated guesses. And it really didn’t get in the way of the story at all. I just enjoyed myself in the work.
Had Simmons told this tale in a standard third-person POV, it would have been a good story. That he told it in Collins’ own first person POV makes the book something else entirely. Collins’ word sometimes drip like acid, piercing the text and you, the reader, with his disdain. It’s wonderful. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a great supporting character: Collins’ doppleganger, the Other Wilkie. Yes, Collins really believed his doppleganger walked and talked and helped his write his books. As a writer, if I wrote that, an agent would laugh in my face. Truth is stranger than fiction.
In interviews, Simmons openly acknowledges his debt to the play/movie Amadeus and its conceit: that composer and rival Salieri plotted to kill Mozart and pass off Mozart’s requiem as his own. If you remember the bitterness F. Murray Abraham laced in the aged Salieri’s voice when he talked about Mozart, you’ll get a sense of the jealousy and growing hatred Collins has for Dickens.
Simmons has written mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. He cut his teeth with his first book, the horror story Song of Kali, and Simmons brings his A Game when describing the horror and dread throughout the book. There were a few scenes in the book that were cringe-worthy and happily so. It’s a testament to a writer as good as Simmons that you lose yourself in this book, a real genre melting pot. When you pick it up, it’s hefty and big. You’ll probably wonder if you’ll ever finish it. You will. You won’t be able to stop, not in a thrill-a-minute kind of way, but in a deeply engrossing one.
Reading Drood has had a side effect in me that Simmons probably hoped for: I now want to read more Dickens’ novels. PBS’ “Little Dorrit” has come at the perfect time and I’m enjoying it so far. In high school, we’re force fed Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities like a prisoner on a hunger strike. As an adult, making my own reading choices, I’m free to read Dickens (or not) and simply enjoy the man’s genius. That, I plan to do.
Then there’s the ending, which I will not give away here. All I’ll say is I didn’t see it coming. It was a little irritating, honestly, but it fit the themes of the book quite well. There is a famous pop cultural moment--two really--that directly mirrors this book and its ending. That moment caused an uproar. Drood is not like that. It’s ending is one that’ll make you smile and, more importantly, want to re-read the book.