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'Drood' by Dan Simmons and 'The Last Dickens' by Matthew Pearl

Two Victorian-era literary detective stories use an unfinished Charles Dickens' novel as their starting-points.

March 01, 2009|Nick Owchar | Owchar is The Times' deputy book editor.

Drood

A Novel

Dan Simmons

Little, Brown: 772 pp., $26.99

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The Last Dickens

A Novel

Matthew Pearl

Random House: 386 pp., $25

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So, Charles Dickens' great fragment, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," has been finished by a contemporary writer?

That's what I thought, eyeing the titles of Dan Simmons' and Matthew Pearl's new novels.

At last.

The story of Dickens' final book is legendary. Twelve installments were planned, but Dickens finished only half. On the day before his death on June 9, 1870, Dickens wrote the final sentence of the sixth, dined with his family and suffered a stroke. He fell to the floor and never regained consciousness.

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were in agony. The six installments present us with tormented John Jasper, choirmaster and opium addict, who desires his nephew Edwin's fiancee, Rosa Budd. Another rival for Rosa arrives, but Dickens stirs suspicions about Jasper, whose murderous looks at Edwin are unmistakable. Other characters are introduced as Jasper's foils, and then Edwin disappears. That's it. Dickens left behind no notes, no outlines, nothing.

There have been attempts to finish Dickens' murder book before, but not recent ones. Yes, there was 1992's "The D. Case," but that (like "Drood," the musical) is a game of multiple endings, not a serious attempt to finish the story. Before that, there was the wooden prose of 1914's "A Great Mystery Solved" and "John Jasper's Secret," published just two years after Dickens' death. (The full text of each, by the way, can be found on Google Books.)

The timing seems right for someone to take Dickens on again. Prequels and sequels have long been part of the publishing landscape. Do you remember "H."? Lin Haire-Sargeant's 1992 novel imagined Heathcliff's life before his return in "Wuthering Heights." At the time, people admired her ingenuity (did they forget about Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea"?) in filling the gaps of a classic work of fiction -- now, the novelty has become a motley genre with a diverse membership. (A recent addition is "Spade and Archer," a prequel to "The Maltese Falcon.")

And yet, neither Simmons nor Pearl picks up where Dickens left off; instead, each uses the circumstances surrounding Dickens' final novel to create detective stories of his own.

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Victoriana overload

Simmons' "Drood" is big, bulky, outrageous, irritating, phantasmic. The entire tale -- all 772 pages of it -- is told by Wilkie Collins, a sometime collaborator and friend of Dickens' who produced the sensational detective novel "The Moonstone" (think of him as Brad Meltzer to Dickens' Dan Brown).

Though jealous of Dickens, Collins is concerned about Dickens' mental health after a deadly railway accident at Staplehurst in 1865. Dickens survived the horrific crash; he climbed from the wreckage and helped the injured. As he did, Collins tells us, he encountered a singularly chilling person, a tall, thin man in a black cape moving among the dead:

"This figure . . . was cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale, and stared at the writer from dark-shadowed eyes. . . . Dickens's impression of a skull was reinforced . . . by the man's foreshortened nose . . . and by small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves."

In the pages that follow, Collins grows convinced that the Chief, as his intimates called Dickens, started a strange acquaintance with this creature, Drood. Dickens turns increasingly morbid; he makes unexplained trips into London from his Gad's Hill home (his mistress, Ellen, lives in the city, but Collins doesn't think this is the reason). The writer's suspicions evolve into a wild theory: Dickens is part of a conspiracy of Drood's to build an occult Egyptian empire in the heart of Victorian London.

"Imagine all of London . . . being huge glass pyramids and bronze sphinxes," a detective warns Collins. "[T]hat's what Drood and his crypt-crawling worshipers of the old Egyptian gods want. . . ."

This may sound bizarre in a brief summary, but it surfaces gradually in the novel, over several hundred pages, as Collins faces book deals and new projects, copes with one mistress who wants to marry and another who's meek as a kitten, and endures the illnesses of his mother and of his brother Charles.

And then there's opium. Collins suffers from rheumatoid gout that exerts "its vice around my aching head and bowels and extremities." For a time, deep swigs from a jug of laudanum eased the pain. Then, in joining Dickens to look for Drood in the sewers beneath London, he encounters the den of Lazaree, "King of the Opium Living Dead," and soon Collins is a regular customer. We travel with him on many nights to St. Ghastly Grim Cemetery, where a sepulcher leads down to Lazaree's den, to a smoking pipe, to sensations of warmth that "never stopped expanding and growing . . . that transformed . . . William Wilkie Collins . . . into the self-confident colossus that he knew in his heart of hearts he always was."

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