Book Simple: A Brood on Drood
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
Does anyone watch CASTLE besides me? In the television show, the eponymous hero, a ridiculously famous and charismatic novelist portrayed by Nathan Fillion, plays a weekly poker game with his literary rivals, James Patterson, Michael Connelly and Stephen J. Cannell. The authors banter, trade stories and assist with plot lines. It’s an adorable riff on brainstorming amongst friends, TV guest-spot style.
Now imagine that fictional friendship transported to Victorian times and real life – such was the relationship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Both were extremely popular serial novelists, with liberal views regarding the extensive social injustices of the day. The authors published in the same magazines, with Collins’s The Woman in White following Dickens’s The Tale of Two Cities. As their long friendship extended, their families became interwoven together, as Collins’s brother wed Dickens’s daughter Kate.
I’ve been looking forward to reading Drood for some time now thanks to a glowing review in The New Yorker. Drood, a 2009 novel written by Dan Simmons, tells the story of a bitter rivalry behind the friendship of Dickens and Collins, and the terrible mystery of Edwin Drood, who is alternately a criminal mastermind, an opium nightmare or the incarnation of Death itself.
The Woman in White is one of my favorite mysteries, creepily atmospheric, with a fiercely intelligent female protagonist, written in the voices of multiple authors in an epistolary style. Collins’s oeuvre formed a model for later detective fiction, was the progenitor of my favorites Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. So it pained me a little that the Wilkie Collins depicted in Drood is venal, vicious, and deeply jealous of his more successful friend.
Collins narrates the tale of Dickens’s life after the train wreck at Staplehurst, where the reknowned author first meets Edwin Drood. Drood appears as a figure “cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale…[with] foreshortened nose – ‘mere black slits opening into the grub-white face than a proper proboscis’ was how Dickens described it – and…small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves.” He hovers, black-clad over the dead and dying, then vanishes into the dark.
Dickens rediscovers Drood deep into London’s underground caverns and sewers, surrounded by “large Egyptian statues carved from stone…the kind of ancient forms one sees in the British Museum and perhaps feels uncomfortable about being amongst on a winter’s evening shortly before closing time.” Dickens explains to Collins that Drood is a mesmerist who is teaching him the art, while an Inspector Field who visits Collins to recruit to spy on Dickens claims that Drood is a murderer, lord of a dark underworld army.
Researching the question of Drood, Collins travels between the two Londons of Victorian times, enjoying sumptuous feasts and living in an elegant, if haunted home, but also venturing into that “suppurating pit of the hopeless poor, [a] nightmare-market of husbandless women, parentless children, Chinese and Lascar and Hindoo thugs and German and American sailor-murderers on the run from their ships…” living in the filth of the dark sewers below. The writer goes in search of opium, to feed his addiction, and as the story continues, it becomes ever more clear that the story of Drood may be a drug-induced fantasy.
The Mountain Goats said it best in their song “Game Shows Touch Our Lives.” “People say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?” Drood is an epic tale of a friendship gone wrong, and if it suffers in comparison with the works of the great writers who appear within it, well, what book doesn’t?