By Nick Owchar
March 1, 2009
That's what I thought, eyeing the titles of Dan Simmons' and Matthew Pearl's new novels.
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 fiancée, 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.
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."
This novel is crammed with every conceivable aspect of Victoriana, both real and imagined: At times, I grew irritable and impatient for Simmons to get on with it (I should know better: After all, his narrator is Wilkie Collins, great practitioner of the principle "make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait").
And yet. The payoff to persevering is reading richly imagined scenes in which Simmons describes Dickens' performance of the murder of "Oliver Twist's" Nancy by Bill Sikes before a terrified audience or Collins' journey with Dickens to Undertown, Drood's kingdom in London's sewers. This set piece, involving a hidden Pharaonic temple, is so vividly rendered that it seems destined for the big screen.
Simmons certainly isn't the first writer to draw a connection between ancient civilizations and Dickens' novel. Edmund Wilson's essay "The Two Scrooges" keyed into this aspect as he argued that the novel's second half is coded into the fragment we have. What every edition of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" needs is an excerpt from Wilson's essay: Appended where the sixth installment ends, it would go far in satisfying readers' hunger for an ending.
Dickens as detective
In Pearl's "The Last Dickens," James Osgood desperately needs to find out how Dickens planned to end the story so that his firm, which publishes Dickens in America, can do something similar -- publish the fragment along with the Chief's notes -- and be saved from financial peril.
With his assistant, Rebecca, Osgood travels to England and to Gad's Hill to search among Dickens' papers. Like Simmons, Pearl includes a menacing figure -- a sinister, cape-wearing Parsee named Herman -- whose interest in the unfinished novel stays, like him, in the shadows. Pearl also includes story lines about Dickens' final American reading tour and near-kidnapping by an obsessed fan and the experiences of his son, Frank, in the Bengal mounted police.
The author of "The Dante Club" and "The Poe Shadow," Pearl creates a story of 19th century publishing with a crime at its center -- a youth is murdered for knowing too much about the opium trade -- and, in bringing Dickens into this, suggests the novelist would have exposed that crime in his novel if he hadn't died.
Osgood and Rebecca widen their search and, after a scuffle in an opium den, Osgood recuperates with cracked ribs at the Falstaff Inn, a genuine site not far from Dickens' estate. In dealing with the kindly innkeeper, he notices the man's "surname's resemblance to the title of Mr. Dickens's last book." That name is William Trood, his son was Edward -- Pearl's not making up the name "Trood." But the sad story he tells -- of Edward's rebelliousness, his ties to an uncle involved in the opium trade and his subsequent vanishing -- is Pearl's invention, which leads us into familiar crime terrain:
"Osgood snapped his fingers. 'If it's true, it all fits together now. . . . When Dickens said there was something "curious and new," this is what he meant -- he was opening the case of a real murder mystery. It was different from anything he had done before. . . . ' "
Dickens as pioneer of the "true crime" novel? Revealing this shouldn't spoil reading this novel -- there are enough twists and turns that follow (including Pearl's extremely clever theory that Dickens did finish his novel). Nor should it spoil reading Simmons' "Drood" that Collins finally becomes a compromised narrator (a nice nod to his own "The Moonstone") so that we can't be sure that Drood exists -- but we can't dismiss him either.
What, then, is the purpose of so many pages of local color, only to have it all end with a question mark? Why, I thought, do these novelists -- Simmons in particular -- ramble when an editor might have cut a more direct route through the story?
Lee Jackson, proprietor of the splendid website on all things Victorian, www.victorianlondon.org, says there are numerous reasons why writers today create long fictions in which a venerated figure like Dickens is shown to have a hidden side. The rise of Victorian studies since the 1960s, Jackson says, is partly responsible because it led to "an uncovering of a 'secret life of the Victorians.' "
"That has overturned some long-cherished clichés about the dour, stern Victorian paterfamilias or matron, and gives one a feeling of exploring a secret world," he explains.
There's also a simple reason why novelists can't help wandering through the Victorian stories they construct. They're overwhelmed by source materials, Jackson says.
"They're vast and astonishing," he says. "The Victorians themselves thoroughly documented almost every aspect of their age . . . diaries, maps, newspapers, ephemera . . . you name it. Thus the period is relatively easy to re-create."
Simmons seems far more guilty of being overwhelmed than Pearl, whose plot lines are well-executed and tightly controlled. But I'm not sure being overwhelmed is a bad thing. In the end, I was more drawn to the bagginess and audacity of Simmons' conceit: Having an opium-addicted, gout-afflicted novelist on the trail of a dark conspiracy is extravagant, even exhilarating -- even though at times I wanted to tear my hair out.
Owchar is The Times' deputy book editor.
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