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Drood by Dan Simmons – Book Review

drood by Dan SimmonsDrood is a weird book. I mentioned it in another review on World’s Strongest Librarian in the comments once, but never got around to doing an actual review. One thing I have always admired about Dan Simmons is that he writes about things that interest him–and better yet, the things that interest him, and the ideas that come as a result, feel like he wrote them with me in mind. To my knowledge, this is not the case, but I can pretend. In this case, the object being examined in the novel is none other than the author Charles Dickens.

The book is narrated by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens’ and also a contemporary author.

Plot summary of Drood

In 1865 Dickens is on a train when it crashes. In the wreckage at the bottom of a ravine, he does his best to tend to the wounded. While he’s running around and wringing his hand, he sees a seriously creeping figure in a black cloak and tall black hat doing something to the bodies. This is Drood, a figure from a nightmare who eventually inserts himself into the lives of Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

Much of the novel involves Collins’ recollections of his own writing career, that of Charles Dickens, and their competition as writers. I heard another reviewer say this book could have been called “A Tale of Two Egos,” and I don’t think that’s half bad, although it doesn’t reveal the richness of the book. What I am calling richness has also been cited as the reason why the book is “boring,” “Interminable,” “Way too long,” “stupid,” and more.

But then I was very interested in the history of Charles Dickens. Although I had read all of his books, I realized I knew fairly little about the man himself. Through Collins the reader learns about Dickens’ writing habits, rituals, insecurities, love of looooong walks, and his fascination with the seedier side of London. By the end of the book we have spent time in some sinister, awful places, like the labyrinth of sewers and tunnels under the city, which are teeming with creepy inhabitants that are ruled by an opium baron named King Lazaree.

On that note, Wilkie Collins is also under the influence for most of the novel, so this raises questions about his reliability as a narrator.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

This was Dickens’ final novel. He hadn’t finished it when he died. There has been a lot of speculation about whether the book was based on personal experiences of its author. It is extremely dark in tone and theme, and is quite unlike Dickens’ other works, in my opinion.

This is where Dan Simmons jumped in and ran with it. If you have read any of his others works, you know how exhaustively they are researched. Simmons often takes letters and documents written by or about his subjects and uses his novels to fill in the gaps. For instance, in The Terror (my review), what was known was that the ship had really disappeared. He answered the question of “What happened to it?” with official documents, lots of research, and a whole lot of his own imagination.

In Drood, the question is: “Was Dickens actually a murderer?” Did he write The Mystery of Edwin Drood to say something about himself? If so, what was it? He and Wilkie Collins’ excursions into the underworld grow increasingly bizarre, as do the public readings of Dickens’.

In the book’s home stretch, Dickens begins reenacting a famous murder from one of his books, reading both parts. The horrified crowds and Dickens’ compulsion to make the readings more and more realistic were some of my favorite scenes in the book.

In short, I have only revealed some choice bits of the novel, which is enormous at 800+ pages. But I was never bored and I read it in a week. Drood heads to places I never could have guessed at, which made it a lot of fun. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, but I rarely am. Anyways, that’s not the point.

If you enjoyed Carrion Comfort, The Terror, or any of the other Dan Simmons books, I highly recommend giving Drood a try.


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  • Elle B. October 28, 2010, 1:28 pm

    I just want to second this. Josh recommended Drood to me a couple months ago, and I found it completely engrossing. But I love Dickens, Collins, creepy London and any kind of Victorian strangeness! If that’s not your cup of tea, it could drag on.

    Josh, I’d like to recommend to you The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (and anything by Bayard). Two words: Young Poe.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 28, 2010, 1:48 pm

      elle, I’ve got it in my hand right now. I went and grabbed it off the shelf as soon as I saw your comment. Will start at lunch!

  • Elle B. October 29, 2010, 7:59 pm

    Cool! Hope you like it. After I finished it, I thought, “You know, I should have seen that coming half-way through.” But I was so engrossed in the story I forgot to try to solve the mystery!

  • Zoot Rollo November 21, 2011, 7:39 pm

    Drood is an amazing novel. For what it’s worth, there are catacombs under London as well as an incredible sewer system… Simmons did his research. Unfortunately – and partly because of Simmons – some parts of the “undertown” (the pre-Victorian catacombs) have become fashionable to go into now. But years ago, in the 80’s, my then English girlfriend and I followed up a vague rumor and found an old, overgrown crypt in Brompton Cemetary that had been broken into; there was a gate in the back of the crypt that led to a stairway that went down to a large stretch of catacombs. We only explored a small part of it. The crypt had broken coffins, partial skeletons, etc (all looted) but we never saw any bones in the catacombs though there were countless niches. One of the most incredible experiences of my life.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 21, 2011, 8:27 pm

      Thanks for the comment! Have you read Flashback or Black Hills yet?

      • Zoot Rollo November 21, 2011, 9:41 pm

        Flashback is the only book by Simmons I haven’t read. He’s an incredible writer – literally impossible to categorize. Summer of Night ranks high among my favorites as do Ilium and Olympos – both showcasing his thorough grasp of Homer. And his very first work – a short piece called The River Styx Runs Upstream and a novel, The Song of Kali – is as good as his recnt stuff. Again, incredible.