‘Drood’, caught my eye as it was intended to do. The author well knew that the single word, part of the title of Charles Dickens’ last, alas unfinished novel, would compel me to reach for it and open its cover. And while the book is about this mysterious character that so many of us will forever remain curious about, it is much more about the narrator, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Collins is a fellow writer who was popular during the Victorian period about which he writes. Wilkie Collins’ brother Charley was married to one of Dickens’ daughters, Katey and the two men were very close for many years. The story starts with the Staplehurst train accident which Charles Dickens barely survived in 1865. According to the Collins, this is where Dickens first encountered Mr. Drood, a caped figure of hideous appearance, with lidless eyes and mere slits where the nose should be. Dickens goes among the injured, dispensing brandy and carrying water, but Drood is also there, possibly trying to hypnotize the injured. Drood disappears but Dickens seems to be fascinated by him and engages Wilkie to pursue him into the great underground sewers of London. He enlists the help of Inspector Fields, who considers Drood to be the sinister mastermind behind dozens, if not hundreds, of unsolved murders in London over the past few decades. Fields assigns a working detective, Hibbett, a huge bear of a man armed with loaded pistol, to accompany the two writers into the seedy parts of the city. They do find Drood, or he finds them, it’s difficult to say which. Collins is becoming more and more addicted to laudanum, an alcohol drink with ten percent opium mixed into it which he uses for pain from gout. This substance was widely prescribed during the Victorian era for all sorts of maladies. Dickens used it at times as well. Collins describes his increasing use of the drug and when the effects no longer dull his pain he turns to the opium dens first discovered on his jaunts through the Great Oven into the underground with Dickens, in pursuit of Drood.
I won’t tell more of the story in case you want to read it for yourself. Dickens’ love affair with actress Ellen Ternan, his estranged wife Catherine, his children, are all there. Collins himself had an unusual family life, living with Caroline and her daughter but having children with another woman at the same time, neither of whom he ever married. If you are a Dickens fan, then you will enjoy it, if not, I would think it might be tiresome. The book is long, over 700 pages, and it’s hard to tell if what Wilkie is saying is the truth, or if it is some wild opium-induced fantasy. Mesmerism, which Charles Dickens was a follower and practitioner of, plays into the story as well. With all of these variables it’s hard to tell sometimes if Collins’ narrative is dream, fantasy, or reality. But it’s very well done and worth the endeavor. I’m not sure how much of the Drood character as portrayed by Simmons is based on Dickens’ ideas or entirely made up. Either way the book is fascinating for those Dickens readers who have gone beyond the more popular works like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist to the later ones David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend.