Drood by Dan Simmons


Reviewed by Douglas R. Cobb

droodMurder, mesmerism, opium, and mystery – what do these things have to do with the life of one of the all-time best novelists, Charles Dickens? As it turns out, quite a lot, at least if you believe the account of one of his best friends, Wilkie Collins, the first-person narrator of Dan Simmons’s vast and sweeping novel, Drood. The problem is, Wilkie is an unreliable narrator, in that besides admiring his friend, he was also a competitor with him, and he was jealous of Dickens’s greater fame and success, much as Soleri was jealous of Mozart. Also, Collins was a long time sufferer from what he termed “rheumatical gout,” (though a doctor later informs him might be a bad case of a venereal disease) and took prodigious amounts of laudanum to deal with the pain and continue with his writing career. This is ironic, as he looked down on those who smoked opium in the numerable opium dens that existed during the era he and Dickens lived, yet he imbibed what was basically a liquid form of opium, and finally also becomes a habitue of opium dens. He experiences hallucinations sometimes, seeing either a hideous woman with a greenish pallor to her skin, or sometimes his own doppleganger, who tries to complete his novels for him.

The title for Drood comes from Dickens’s final, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I am a fan of Charles Dickens, though I confess I have only read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and The Pickwick Papers by him, and not many of the other novels and short stories Simmons’s book refers to, such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend. I would like to remedy this some day, especially as Wilkie Collins – the author of several best- selling books and renowned plays of his day, which now most people have for the most part forgotten – compares the quality of Our Mutual Friend to the comedies of Shakespeare.

Speaking of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens (then fifty-three) was carrying with him the incomplete manuscript of it when, in 1865, the train he was in with his companion Ellen Ternan and her mother derailed in Staplehurst, England. Ten people were killed in the accident, and dozens injured. Throughout Drood, Wilkie refers to this as the “Staplehurst incident.” Dickens was in the only car that did not go off the bridge and crash, though its rear end hung off of the remains of the bridge into the air. He suffered both physical and psychological injuries from which he never fully recovered, and afterwards, he was never comfortable with riding in a train, or even a horse-drawn carriage, if it went too fast.

What happened that day, besides the crash, that so traumatized Dickens? Dan Simmons suggests that this is when Charles Dickens first met the man who would serve as his real-life inspiration for his character Edwin Drood, and that this encounter haunted him and played a major influence on the final five years of Dickens’ life. There are certain things I read in Drood about Dickens’s private affairs, like how he mistreated his wife and manipulated the people around him that I found to be contemptible; but, his assistance of the survivors of the train wreck was admirable, if what he claims he did is true. For instance, he tells Collins he offered people water, held their hands to comfort them while the rest of their bodies were trapped in the wreckage, and he’d call out for the authorities on the scene to come over whenever he discovered someone alive to get them more help.

This is where Dickens tells Wilkie he saw the cadaverous figure of Drood, who seemed to Dickens to be a figure of death, a sort of Grim Reaper-like competitor that tried to beat him to survivors to bring them death instead of comfort and help. Dickens becomes obsessed with this person, and attempts to learn as much about his nemesis as he can, and to track him down, only based on the scant information Drood gives him – which are the places Drood will visit while in London. These places are the worst slums and areas of the city imaginable, and Dickens feels Drood also desires to bring death there, and add to his many victims.

Charles Dickens becomes almost like Sherlock Holmes, then, and Wilkie Collins acts as his Watson, in tracking down Drood, who was supposedly traveling on the train from Paris in a coffin to avoid detection. I found this part of Simmons’s novel to be especially fascinating, and the account of Dickens’s meeting with Edgar Allan Poe in America. Dickens seemed not very impressed, but Poe is known as the Father of the Detective Novel for his creation of the French detective C. Auguste Daupin, and both he and Collins refers to “the powers of ratiocination.”

Throughout the +700 pages of Drood, Simmons skillfully manipulates the reader’s attitude towards the title character several times. Is he a mysterious Egyptian serial killer, responsible for the murders of over three hundred people, and a master of mesmerism (hypnotism)? Is he a misunderstood, strangely heroic figure? Does he become Dickens’s teacher, his mentor, in the art of mesmerism, which Dickens considered himself to be an expert in even before meeting Drood? Or, is Drood, as Wilkie later believes and tells Inspector Field, who has enlisted the narrator’s aid through blackmail and providing him with a source of smokable opium and a house for himself and his mistress and her daughter to find out from Dickens more information about Drood which will lead to his capture, possibly a figment of Dickens’s fertile imagination? When the inspector asks Collins what purpose would Dickens have to invent such a character, Wilkie answers him that the reason would be:

“Power,” I said. “A mischievous sense of power over others. For many years, as I’ve told you, Dickens has played with magnetic influence and mesmerism. Now he invents this Master of Mesmerism as his alter ego, as it were.”

If you are a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, or simply love to read great mysteries, or both, you’re sure to love reading Drood. In length, and its sometimes Dickensian use of language, it reminded me of some of Dickens’s own novels. It is extremely well researched, with sources noted a the conclusion of the novel, and though Wilkie Collins is an unreliable narrator, his narration is relatively plausible. His devotion to, admiration for, and jealousy of, Charles Dickens is masterfully brought out by Simmons, and though the novel is long, the author always succeeds in making it interesting and suspenseful. I highly recommend that you check it out today

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