In June of 1865, Charles Dickens is involved in a train accident while traveling with his secret mistress and her mother. While he helps minister to the injured, he meets a mysterious man who only goes by the name of Drood and becomes drawn into a strange and secretive underworld filled with crypts, lime pits, opium dens and the seedy side of London life. Dickens is haunted and forever changed by the accident and his meeting with Drood, but his strange behavior doesn’t escape the attention of his friend and fellow novelist, Wilkie Collins, who is also drawn into and narrates Dickens’ mysterious behavior and nightly forays into the seedy side of life. It’s hard to tell whether Dickens is doing research for his next book or if all of his wanderings around London after dark have a more sinister meaning.
There were so many things that I enjoyed about reading this novel. It is obvious with every careful sentence that Dan Simmons has spent a lot of time researching this topic and there were so many wonderful details that you learn about Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the writing life. Much of the information was new to me, so it was interesting to see the way plays were adapted and staged from the books, the serialization and the editing process. I loved seeing the writing styles and the way that both authors approached their crafts and came up with their ideas.
This book made me interested to read further on the relationship between Dickens and Collins, which seems as if it were complicated and sometimes contentious, but I suspect that there were different nuances in their real life relationship. Simmons is a vivid writer and the scenes describing London and the way that they handled sewage and the burial of their dead were hard for me to stomach. The description and detail there was a little too vivid! Another thing I noted was the portrayal of the two men’s behavior and thoughts juxtaposed to the themes that they explored in their writing. In this novel, neither man seemed to be as concerned in real life with the issues that concerned them on the page.
While there was much that I enjoyed about Drood, reading the book left me with a restless feeling, and much of my discomfort stemmed with the length. There were only so many descriptions of Collins taking his laudanum that I wanted to read, and even delving into the life of Dickens started to take away from the plot. I loved the detail but after about 400 pages I started to feel as if the information were being thrown at me and not as well integrated into the story. Dickens life seems full and fascinating, several volumes all by itself I’m sure, but in the end a lot of it was distracting. Enough clues were scattered throughout the book so that an intrepid reader could figure out a version of events close to what was going on, but it was wrapped up way too quickly and haphazardly for me to view it as the proper payoff for such a long book.
All in all, I liked this book more than I didn’t like it. It is a great blend of historical fiction and thrilling suspense. The mystery definitely kept me going and made me want to find out more about Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and how closely the novel played to real events. If it were only a few hundred pages shorter I think I would be raving about this book, and the ending, which keeps you guessing until the end.