Sometimes you want a book you can sink your teeth into and the time required to extract them. I mistakenly took this, my first Dan Simmons’ book to Costa Rica thinking I would soak up the sun delving into this almost 800 page beauty.
On the outside, it had all the right trappings of a beach book: suspense, murder, and mystery. Then again, I’m not one to typically soak up anything other than maybe a crust of bread in some gravy that needs to be sopped up. Off the beach and try though I might to get into this historical fictional novel while coasting in the hammock, it was not to be.
“Drood” had caught my eye at our favorite used bookstore Green Apple when it was in its behemoth first printed hard cover edition. The cover’s brooding shadowy figure, the scrolling script typeface and the premise all had me hooked before I’d started.
Charles Dickens was mired in mystery the last two years of his life. Had he begun living a double life that took him down to the slums of undertown, bustling with life well below London proper? Had he committed murder and who was this character Edwin Drood in his last novel that came to unseemly ends in an unfinished novel? Drood sounded like dread and this device only escalated the interest for what kind of dread lay in store for the characters.
Beck and his best friend Chris have been fans of Simmons for a while. Their enjoyment of “Hyperion” and then later “Illium” by Simmons projected him to be a sci-fi / fantasy writer with vision, an exceptional vocabulary and a storyteller wound around well-developed characters. Not to mention, Simmons has won one or two Hugo awards.
This book, “Drood” took me several tries before getting into it and much of that involved my own relationship to the narrator. From the beginning he tried to win the reader’s trust, with the reader unsure if he should be trusted. William “Wilkie” Collins, we learn from the book jacket is friend, frequent collaborator and secret nemesis to Charles Dickens ala Salieri to Mozart. We also learn early on that he suffers from rheumatical gout, a detail stamped on the pages every now and then as a constant reminder of his suffering and his means to minimize that suffering… An iconoclast, he bucked tradition and sought to write his own rules for living a good life that were not necessarily always ethical, in the best interest of the people around him or even humane. And yet at the beginning, the simpleton of the reader set out to trust him, the teller of this story, though his introduction is anything less than stalwart.
The story really began and picked up from June 9th when Dickens survived a train accident at Staplehurst. He described seeing this figure with two slits for a nose and lidless eyes wearing an opera cape who dashed to the fallen men and women and looked as though he was giving them last rites or possibly stealing their souls. Obsessed with learning the truth of this mysterious character, Dickens pursued him deep into Undertown after the accident with his trusty friend Collins at his side. Along the way the reader met the tall and lovable Detective Hatchery, the wily Detective Field and the provocative love interests of both Dickens and Collins.
This world Simmons had managed to create was dingier than expected and yet believably fit into a world that felt Dickensian and out of which the inimitable might have written. You watch the subtle and stead demise revealed like chips on china of the friendship between Dickens and the narrator Collins. The fantastical elements Simmons wove into the tale are both forgiven and intriguing especially because of his experience in fantasy and sci-fi and his vast knowledge of classical literature. So many details of this book were left to the book, not to be diluted by discussion here…
I finished the book wondering two things. First did Simmons read Collins’ “The Woman in White” or “The Moonstone” heralded to be the most popular novels of their time and yet since Simmons lives in this future, know them to be mere shadows when cast against the fortitude of his friend Dickens’ writings? I wondered when his spark of inspiration struck of a book with a chess match involving the notable characters imbued with notes from history and his influence of creativity. That he did his research to be faithful to the era and main characters is certain but to conceive of the layers of overlap and complexity of the characters, writings of both and their writing lives sucked me in as a reader and compellingly made the almost 800 pages go by midway like a brief book. It also made me again want to start a journal.
Secondly, I wondered about the role of the untrust-able narrator. When I started reading this, Beck and I entered into a hearty discussion on this device’s popularity in many current fictional books. It’s one that I’m not terribly fond of because you begin a book with a sense of weightlessness. If you can’t trust the one telling the majority of the story, who can you trust? I read another book late last year, “The Lace Reader” that employed a similar strategy, which worked marvelously well but left me feeling both rather commendable for figuring it out before the end and also rather duped. We want to believe in what the narrator is telling us but what happens when you can’t? Perhaps just as importantly, what happens when you begin to disregard clues and signs left before you in a book, dismissing them because you’re too involved believing the narrator and enthralled in their side of the story. Have you found this in books you’ve read recently? It might be an exercise to work into a narrative poem, just to try it on as a writer.
It has been several days and I am not ready yet to pick up another book as I find myself still deeply set in the world of “Drood” and also contemplating its end and some mysteries that do not cleanly tie themselves off at the end. Then again, should a good mystery lay bare all of its soul or leave the reader to wonder and let their imagination work harder? Our next book for the Classic Great Divide is “A Tale of Two Cities”; it seems appropriate to not leave that world yet though the reader in me might start a bit skewed towards the inimitable author, Charles Dickens.