The odd murder mystery novel is told as a memoir by Dickens’s friend, fellow novelist, and opium addict Wilkie Collins.
Since a violent train accident on June 9, 1865, Dickens is haunted by an apparition named Drood, the same figure that may be responsible for a number of horrific crimes across London. Dickens confides in Wilkie Collins because the man is among his closest friends and shares interests in sensationalist stories, hypnosis, and the supernatural. Though Collins is skeptical, he joins in a clandestine investigation with Dickens, and both novelists are drawn into an intricate high-stakes game of deception with private detectives and Egyptian cults waging war for the soul of London. Collins, however, also becomes suspicious of Dickens whose sudden interest in methods of murder and disposal of a corpse seem to be more than just research for a new novel. All the while, Collins also feels himself to be in a friendly professional rivalry with Dickens, wanting his new novel to best his friend in terms of both literary reputation and financial outcome.
Though the plot of Drood sounds as though it could have come from a novel of written by Dickens or Collins, one of the real delights of this book is watching the interplay between the two authors who are so dissimilar. While Dickens does his best to appear the epitome of an English gentleman, whatever his personal circumstances are, Collins thumbs his nose at social convention by having multiple mistresses and writing novels that shock and outrage the reading public.
Though both men are friends, they are also professional competitors. Collins takes pains to point out characters, selections, and whole novels from Dickens that he hates even as he craves the man’s approval. Collins frequently shares his work with Dickens, always trying to one-up the other novelist as a means of getting the critical recognition he believes he deserves. The interplay is akin to that of the titular characters of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The situation between Collins and Dickens, however, is freighted with personal and professional envy between two grown men trying to achieve financial success and literary immortality.
The novel takes many sudden turns, includes fantastical elements like ghouls and hypnotic suggestion, and characters become increasingly morbid. It is difficult, however, to determine what events actually transpire and what are fabrications of Collins’s vivid imagination or opium inspired hallucinations such as descending into London’s Undertown, struggling with his Doppelganger, or confronting other ghosts that haunt his home. This constant questioning of what is real does not wear thin because the reader is kept on edge by it.
Collins is also deceitful in his hypocritical criticism of Dickens’s personal and professional life and his callous treatment of his mistresses. It is fascinating to watch as he slowly devolves from a clever if envious trickster into a paranoid and deranged misanthrope. The collapse of his psyche, along with his other aforementioned traits, is interesting because it not only displays the tragic arc of the character’s trajectory but also it adds another layer of questionability to much of the novel and whether or not the reader can trust Collins and what he reports to the reader.
Victory for Simmons
While both Dickens and Collins battle for the hearts of English audiences, the real winners are Dan Simmons and the readers of Drood. The characters are deep and engaging in their complex motives, and the twists that lead readers to question much of what happens in the novel creates a wonderful tension the likes of which is rarely seen again in novels like The Magus by John Fowles.
Simmons, Dan. Drood. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009.
© 2010 Seth Tomko