Saturday, January 9, 2010

What I'm Reading Now: Drood by Dan Simmons

In Drood, Dan Simmons speculates about the last years of Charles Dickens’ life, beginning with the Staplehurst rail crash in 1865. In the crash, the train Dickens was traveling in fell off of a bridge that was being repaired. While he was unharmed, he never full recovered from the trauma of the incident. Since the accident, the only novel he ever finished was the already in-progress, Our Mutual Friend, which he rescued from the crash. His final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was never completed before he died, and has since become the inspiration for this and many other novels.

Drood is narrated from the point-of-view of Dickens’ real-life friend, author, and opium-addict, Wilkie Collins. Dickens takes Collins into his confidence to tell him about a spectral figure named Drood (who had been traveling in a coffin) that he spotted in the aftermath of the train crash. According to Collins, Dickens becomes obsessed with Drood. He ventures with Dickens into London's seedy underground in an attempt to find him, and to figure out what he was doing at the crash site.

As a narrator, Collins is delightfully unreliable. The reader never knows whether what he says is an accurate account of events, or one of his drug-induced fantasies. It is known that the real Collins suffered from paranoid delusions due to opium use.

Now, I’m not much of a Dickens fan, ever since I had to read A Tale of Two Cities when I was a junior in high school. But the speculative nature of the book appealed to me. Simmons doesn’t quite have the Victorian style down, so it’s not as daunting to a contemporary reader. In addition, not having read much Dickens did not hinder my understanding of Drood.

At 784 pages, this could easily become a doorstopper of a book, and the pacing at times is quite leisurely. However, you get pulled right in by the tension between Dickens and Collins (who clearly envies his friend's success) as well as by the mystery and intrigue surrounding Drood. If you're looking for a book you can sink into and stay for a while, give this one a try.


The Dickens work that inspired this novel is of course, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Also of interest is the short ghost story, The Signal-Man which was likely inspired by the Staplehurst train crash, and is probably based on the Clayton Tunnel crash in 1861.

Wilkie Collins' most successful novel, The Woman in White, is considered to be one of the earliest mystery novels.

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl is a mystery about an American publisher who is waiting for the latest installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. After the man he sends to pick it up is murdered, he takes it upon himself to investigate the suspicious circumstances.


Lauren said...

Great review - I've been eyeing this book up for quite awhile, but the size of it has held me back.

Lauren said...

Great review! I've been eyeing this book up for a while, but the size of it has scared me off...perhaps I'll give it a go.