Drood 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.