Do you find the idea of Victorian London romantic? Do visions of misty streets and pedestrians in period costumes titillate your imagination? Do they conjure up the delicious allure of mysterious dark figures like Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper?
If chilling suspense and historically-inspired tales are what makes you tick, Drood (2009), written by Dan Simmons, is surely the book for you, especially if you’re also interested in British literature.
Set in 19th century England, Drood follows the footsteps of the famous author Charles Dickens, during the last five years of his life. Throughout the novel, Simmons uses many factual events which are known to have really happened, such as Dickens’ terrifying experience in the destructive Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, his health problems, as well as his troubled relationship with his ex-wife and family. However, the majority of the book takes its stance not only from theoretical suppositions, like Dickens’ supposed relationship with his mistress, but mostly from the realm of the fantastical and the grotesque.
The narrator of the novel is not Charles Dickens, but his close friend Wilkie Collins, a writer who at the time was quite well-known, though obviously not as revered as Dickens himself. Collins’ insightful descriptions of Dickens are in fact tinged with jealousy and obsessive envy from the very beginning of the novel, so as to make whatever he says highly suspect. His well-known dependence on highly addictive and hallucinatory substances like opium and laudanum also refrains the reader from trusting him completely.
Collins’ perspective of England however does reveal the economic and social problems – the poverty, dirt, misery and hypocrisy which the poor had to face every day. Since this is a major theme in all of Dickens’ books themselves, Simmons’ portrayal of events, though heavily saturated with the occult and the magical, still borders on the practical and (for Collins and Dickens) current situation.
The portrayal of the titan of British literature is incomplete, and yet his bluff, whimsical and addictive personality and genius shines through the haze, even though we experience it from a twisted and questionable perspective. Dickens himself, though a genius when it comes to writing, is hardly the perfect gentleman – his strange interest in mesmerism and the occult, his suspect journeys into the dark London under-city of thugs and derelicts, not to mention his awful behaviour towards his family, show the reader a prodigy, who is still a fallible man.
I don’t want to give any spoilers of the central mystery within the plot itself. Suffice it to say that the title Drood, which supposedly is a reference to Dickens’ last unfinished novel, acquires a much more sinister and deeper meaning under Simmons’ inquiring pen.
In the end – nothing is as it seems.
This book is a psychological and mesmerising thriller, not just for those who love the classics or history, but for those readers who really enjoy puzzling out a good mystery.