Literary Crime Fighters: Part II
As discussed last week, the above is a summary that I came up with that fits two books I’ve read recently equally well even though they are two very different novels. Last week I talked about the first, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. This week, we cross an ocean and turn to Dan Simmons’ Drood, which leaves those dull Bostonians behind in favor of a richly imagined Victorian London with Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens at the forefront of the caper.
Just to give you the brief summary, Drood follows Collins and Dickens through the last few years of Dickens’ life, beginning with the disastrous Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. Dickens barely escaped with his life and Simmons chooses to portray this crash as the beginning of the end for Dickens’ sanity and health (he would eventually die five years later in 1870). Meanwhile, the narrator of the whole story is the thoroughly unreliable (see: opium and professional jealousy) and slightly crazy novelist Wilkie Collins. Collins’ own lack of mental health becomes increasingly evident as the book progresses and leads the reader to an ever-increasing incredulity of the events as they are portrayed by Collins.
To put it simply, Drood is extremely good. Simmons is so thoroughly comfortable in both Victorian London and Collins’ head (a rather dangerous place to be comfortable) that the book is a tribute to the writing of historical fiction and the use of historic figures in fiction. At no point is Simmons weighed down by the necessity of “keeping character” in his historic figures nor does he ever struggle to maintain historic accuracy of place. Simmons is gifted in both these aspects and, thus unfettered, his writing allows the gargantuan Drood to fly along at a buoyant clip that never drags.
My sole complaint about Drood is a personal preference issue rather than a true failing of the novel and that is its darkness. As the book progresses and Collins becomes increasingly nutty, the book veers deeper and deeper into darkness. Whereas Drood opens with Collins/Watson grumpily following Dickens/Holmes around the dingier areas of Victorian London, by the end of the book, in his madness Collins has become Moriarty and Dickens is a ragged dying man. (No spoilers there, you know he dies in 1870 from the very beginning.) Personally, I greatly preferred the “Wilkie and Charles out to solve mysteries!” tone of the earlier portions of Drood, although I cannot deny the intelligence and incredible twists of the later, darker sections of the novel. As suggested by its ominous title (and cover art, see above), Drood is no merry tale and the last sections of the novel fully realize Simmons’ ominous intentions.
And the last twist is a piece of absolute genius which makes you rethink the entire novel–no easy task! You’ve just spent 700 pages with Collins and Dickens’ final revelation turns those 700 pages completely upside down. So if you can make it though the occasionally morbid and horrifying bits to the very end, I highly recommend you do. And, more specifically, if you’re looking for a bit of 19th century literary crime solving, skip the Pearl and focus on Simmons. He’ll wow you.
I, meanwhile, will next be checking out (from the Ottendorfer branch, of course!) William J. Palmer’s far sillier series of books about a crime-solving Charles Dickens as told by his sidekick Wilkie Collins. Just the ticket.
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