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In 1865, when Charles Dickens was fifty-three, he, his companion Ellen Ternan
and her mother were in the first class cabin of a train that derailed in
Staplehurst, England. Ten people were killed in the accident, and dozens
injured. Dickens, who was carrying with him the incomplete manuscript of his
last published novel, Our Mutual Friend, was in the only car that did not
go off the bridge and into the gorge—but he suffered both physical and
psychological injuries from which he never fully recovered.
Dan Simmons uses this real event as the launching point for a historical novel
that fictionalizes the final five years of Dickens' life. The famous author had
a reputation for exaggerating when recounting anecdotes about his life, so he is
something of an unreliable narrator. However, rather than tell the story from
Dickens' point of view, Simmons passes the reins to his friend, Wilkie Collins, a
novelist and playwright who consumes astonishing amounts of the opiate laudanum
to counter chronic pain from a form of arthritis, which sets him up as the most
unreliable of narrators. Even he can't be certain what happens all the time due
to his drug use, and he is often forced to rely on Dickens' versions of events,
which are themselves suspect.
Simmons uses Dickens' final, unfinished manuscript, The Mystery of Edwin
Drood, as inspiration, yanking the title character into Dickens' life.
Dickens tells Collins that, in the aftermath of the train accident, he
encountered a dark figure flitting from victim to victim. Virtually everyone the
man Drood attends is found dead shortly thereafter.
Drood, who was supposedly traveling on the train from Paris in a coffin—to
avoid detection, he later claims—becomes Dickens' nemesis, a mysterious character who
is either a minion of evil or a misunderstood hero determined to root out the
worst of London's underground evil—or perhaps a figment of Dickens' fertile
imagination. Simmons skilfully alters the reader's attitude toward Drood several
times during the book as different rumors and reports of his nature come to
After the accident, Dickens is driven to find Drood, rumored to be a master
of hypnosis of Egyptian origin. Many refuse to acknowledge that Drood exists,
but Dickens' obsession is contagious. Collins is fascinated by any man who could
hold such power over the "Inimitable" Dickens. Another man, a
disgraced former police inspector, pesters Collins for years, threatening him
with exposure if he refuses to extract information from his friend that will
lead to Drood's apprehension.
Though Dickens' name is familiar to almost everyone in modern times, both
Collins and Dickens had distinguished reputations in the middle of the 19th century.
Dickens occasionally served as Collins' editor, publishing his work in serial
form in his weekly magazine, All the Year Round, and Collins served for a
while as editor of Dickens' Household Words. There ties were also
familial—Collins' brother married Dickens' daughter Kate.
The two men also collaborated on The Frozen Deep, a stage play based
on the doomed expedition of the Terror and Erebus attempting to find a Northwest
Passage, which was the subject of Simmons' novel The
Terror. It was during the production of this play that Dickens met actress
Ellen Ternan, nearly 30 years his junior, who was with him on the train on the
day of the Staplehurst accident.
The story takes Dickens and Collins into a parallel, dark London that exists
in the sewers beneath the city on a rendezvous with the mysterious and menacing
Drood. The novel is written in Dickensian style—with frequent cliffhangers and
portents of doom—and language, which takes a while to get used to. However, if
the reader will grant Simmons fifty pages to adapt to the unfamiliar and
somewhat archaic style, the remaining seven hundred pages are as compelling and
riveting as anything Simmons has written. Drood is an incredibly fast read,
despite its length.
This isn't the first time Simmons has fictionalized the life of a writer. In Fires
of Eden he uses Mark Twain as a character, and in The Crook Factory
he relates the little-known espionage activities of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. He
has become expert at using the lynchpins of a real biography as the framework
for his fictional accounts. Occasionally, however, his devotion to detail gets
in the way of the story. He has clearly done a massive amount of research and
seems loathe to leave any of it off the page. He pulls real quotes from his
protagonists (or their correspondents) to create verisimilitude, but they
sometimes feel contrived and lacking in context. Fortunately, he was somewhat
handicapped by Dickens' penchant for destroying all correspondence, as if he
were afraid that it might somehow be used against him after his death.
Drood is as much a story of literary competition and jealousy as it is
about mesmerism and mayhem. Simmons does not paint a flattering portrait of
either Dickens or Collins. Collins is a drug-addled paranoid who believes he is
being stalked by his doppelganger. Dickens abruptly ended his marriage to
Catherine Hogarth and carried on a long-term surreptitious affair with Ternan,
the nature of which is historically vague because Ternan also destroyed her
letters from Dickens. Dickens and Collins had a turbulent relationship, subject
to professional rivalries and disagreements over the comparative quality of each
others' works, some of
which cause prolonged rifts.
After Staplehurst, Dickens' productivity declined markedly; however, he
remained in the public eye through a series of public readings where he
dramatized revised versions of his most famous novel scenes. Though illnesses
threatened to slow him down, his determination to perform and entertain carried
him on, as does his obsession with Drood.
Late in the novel, a visit to a lime pit near a secret burial ground raises
the possibility of murder—was Dickens responsible for the disappearance of a
young man whose trust fund he oversaw? And is Wilkie Collins, who regularly
visits opium dens and has a nontraditional lifestyle that puts him at odds
with contemporary mores, capable of killing? The book is driven by mystery and
intrigue, but, as with any Victorian novel, there is so much more going on, all
of which combines to make a delightful and entertaining novel.
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