Charles Dickens' final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was left unfinished upon the author's death.
But what if it wasn't just a novel? What if there was some truth to the tale?
Dan Simmons imagines that very possibility in his latest tome, Drood. Readers familiar with Dickens' last work will find recognizable elements throughout Simmons' story; I confess my Dickens background is a little light, so, for me, the story was a complete surprise.
The book begins a few years before Dickens' death. Dickens life is in shambles: his wife has been sent away in favor of another who has caught his eye, his health and well-being are compromised by a terrible train accident that robbed him of his peace, he is in pain and is feeling the hot breath of mortality on his neck.
Wilkie Collins, as narrator, has an intimate view into the life of Dickens. They are friends and co-workers who know each other's secrets. Wilkie Collins is a reliable narrator, which is an invaluable element of this book. Without a trusted tale-teller, the tale would be too fantastic and amazing for the reader as it snakes above and below Dickensian London, with dead men, drug addiction, scarabs, mesmerism, train wrecks, illicit love affairs and a lime pit.
The story is compelling and full of surprises. With each chapter is a new revelation, richly imagined and described with a clarity and detail that brings the tale alive to the reader. One does not just see the underbelly of London, but smells and touches it. Class division, a foreign concept to Americans, is alive and well in this book.
The tale is fabulous, but it would have been limited to words on a page if not for the lively characters. Collins brings to live an amazing cast, from the poor pension-free and disgruntled police detective, to the bodyguard whose final experiences literally shocked me into bad dreams, to the lady with the green skin who calls into question the narrator's very fiber of being— or does it?
In the end, who to believe? Dickens, who appeared to have no reason to mangle the truth because there was no real benefit to him? Collins, whose very reality begs the question be asked in the first place? An unpublished story that makes Collins' waking life seem like a fantasy? I do not need an answer. What I need to do is re-read Drood and see what I missed during my sleepless nights of reading as I rushed to a finale I could not have anticipated in my wildest dreams.
Then I need to get my hands on a few novels by the authors in question and enjoy them with a different perspective. Maybe Drood is fiction, but it's real enough for me.