ARTS

  /  

March 13, 2009

Bizarre thriller relates Dickens' last decade through eyes of rival novelist Collins

In 1857, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins collaborated on their first and only play together, The Frozen Deep. Taking the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic Expedition of 1845 as their subject, Dickens and Collins produced a fictionalized melodrama of the tragedy, leaving the more grisly aspects of the event, such as cannibalism, to be examined by later writers.

A century and a half later, American author Dan Simmons revisited the doomed Franklin Expedition in his novel The Terror. Having covered the same material as Collins and Dickens, perhaps it only makes sense that Simmons’s new novel, Drood, explores the fraught friendship and uneasy collaboration between the two most famous novelists of the Victorian Era. This fictionalized account of the last years of Dickens’s life is an enjoyable, if overly long, thriller, complete with cameos from famous literary figures, practitioners of Egyptian occultism, and denizens of an underground city in the sewers of London.

Our narrator for this chronicle of 1860's London is Wilkie Collins himself, writing an account for the “Dear Reader of my posthumous future.” Relaying the story of Dickens’s near-death experience in a train accident in 1865 and subsequent obsession with mesmerism, Collins tells of the author’s seemingly chance encounter with a very strange man known only as “Drood.” The mystery of Drood’s intentions and his role in what Collins perceives to be Dickens’s growing insanity make up the plot of the novel.

Collins, a notorious opium addict and flouter of societal conventions, is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. He sees green-skinned women with tusks in his laudanum-induced stupor, presenting these ghostly figures as unimpeachable fact to us. The question of how much we can believe Collins’s “true story” guides the rest of the fantastical tale. Full of potshots against Dickens' character, Collins's narration is also colored by his undisguised jealousy of Dickens’s literary and commercial successes.

Simmons’s creation of this fictionalized Collins is one of the great successes of the novel. He is petty, unattractive, and gluttonous, but also completely aware of his personal flaws. This makes for an exceedingly complex character, a rarity in suspense novels. Collins’s historical asides can be a bit tedious, especially when they are repeated more than once in the 771 pages of the novel, but they are at least interesting the first time around. Through the mouth of Collins, Simmons creates a vivid picture of the underworld of 1860's London, as well as the bucolic countryside of Dickens’s manor.

The strength of the novel lies, though, in the creation of minor characters that would not be out of place in Dickens’s own novels. Here we have a hulking sergeant with a secretly gentle demeanor, an extremely forgetful barrister hidden behind mountains of legal briefs, and a toothless crone who owns a filthy opium den. Simmons’s ear for dialogue is itself worthy of Collins’s jealousy, as demonstrated by an alcoholic gravedigger:

"I fancy they must’ve crook-hitched one another good when they met promiscuous-like, the way it must’ve been in the dark when candles were the thing—and they’re laid out in what was an underground chapel here long time ago, closed up back when all the heads was rolling and everyone was lifting toasts to Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that."

Who knows what it means, but it sure is fun.

The three or four hundred pages of Drood containing passages like this that are pure mystery are surely the most enjoyable. The rest of the novel consists of somewhat tedious repetitions of unimportant biographical information about the two main characters. For example, a complete rehashing of the plots of Collins’s The Moonstone and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is unnecessary and distracting. If Simmons had carved the fat from his plot like Collins working over a succulent roast beef, he would have a nice, tight thriller. Here’s hoping that Simmons cuts down on his appetite for red herrings and fluff the next time around.