Tuesday, January 5, 2010
The novel (which, incidentally, gets its title from the unfinished novel of Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) is a fictionalized account of the final years of Charles Dickens' life as told by his friend Wilkie Collins, also a writer of some repute. It opens with an account of Dickens' experience during the Staplehurst rail accident of 1865, where he escaped injury but tended to the dead and dying in the immediate aftermath. Dickens notices an odd person dressed in a black cape and hat with white skin, sharp teeth, and strange face milling about the scene. This character turns out to be Drood, who will haunt both Dickens and Collins for the rest of their lives.
The accident has a profound effect on Dickens' psychological state, and he leads Collins on a hunt to find Drood in the seedy underbelly of London. The narration takes us through such colorful (actually rather drab and dirty) places as an opium den hidden in a graveyard to cities of homeless built in the sewer system. This half of the novel that really shined for me--I enjoyed the descriptions of London as well as the back story of the Drood character (which I won't give away).
The second part of the book concerns the growing opium addiction and subsequent degeneration of Wilkie Collins at the hands of Drood. The mystery of Drood the man, while not completely forgotten, becomes a more distant concern as Collins' jealousy of Dickens begins to take over his life. The novel reaches its climax when an unstable Collins comes to the decision that he must kill Dickens if he is to be rid of the troubles plaguing his life.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what really happened at the conclusion of the novel. By this point, Collins' narration becomes so unreliable, some events and conversations that I thought were real may or may not actually have taken place. In the end, I was left wondering if the entire plot had been an opium-induced fantasy by Collins. Perhaps this is what Simmons intended for his readers, but I was left completely unsatisfied at the end this fairly lengthy book.
I think that Drood is just crying out for a good editor. There were large swaths of the book about Collins's personal life that, while somewhat interesting (they managed to hold my attention enough to finish the book), did essentially nothing to advance the central plot. I couldn't help but think that Simmons was being somewhat self-indulgent at times by beating me over the head with details of the Victorian lifestyle. Had the book been shorter, say 400 pages instead of 750, its plot would have been tighter, its action more taut, and, in the end, a much better novel.