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Onyx reviews: Drood by Dan Simmons

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 light.

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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