Literary Crime Fighters: Part II

March 3, 2010 at 12:00 am 9 comments

Famous literary figures of the 19th century band together to solve a mystery that is threatening the safety of their city, their very lives, and their livelihoods in the 1860s.

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.


This post is happily participating in Library Loot! Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post–feel free to steal the button–and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.


Entry filed under: Historical Fiction, Mystery. Tags: , , , , , , .

Discussion Questions: Trilby Discussion Post: Trilby

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  March 3, 2010 at 7:45 am

    Two things:

    1) Great post, Corey! Now I’m desperate to read Drood — probably as soon as I finish the beast that is Perdido Street Station.

    2) Um, that silly Dickens/Collins series needs to be filmed. No joke.

    3) Apparently our new layout doesn’t mark posts with the author’s name? :\

    • 2. Corey  |  March 3, 2010 at 7:53 am

      1) Thanks, buddy! I highly recommend Drood. It’s monstrously long but it really did speed by and I wanted to read it whenever I had a spare second!

      2) Agreed.

      3) Yeah, I noticed that a while back and assumed you knew! Should we start signing our posts or something? It’ll be like Little Women‘s version of the Pickwick Portfolio!

      • 3. KT  |  March 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm

        Yes, let’s! I’m afraid it’s not entirely clear who is writing what — and I want people to know how awesome my co-blogger is :D

      • 4. Corey  |  March 4, 2010 at 6:10 am

        Mutual, I’m sure! :D

  • 5. litlove  |  March 3, 2010 at 9:57 am

    What an interesting review! I hadn’t heard of the book before, but I love the premise of Collins and Dickens bringing each other down. I do wish there weren’t quite such a trend of unredeemed morbidity in certain parts of the literary thriller genre, but I can quite see this would be worth reading nevertheless. I’ll look out for it.

    • 6. Corey  |  March 3, 2010 at 11:37 am

      Thanks! I was first attracted to the book by the premise of Collins and Dickens both helping and hindering each other to solve some kind of mystery, so I would definitely recommend it if you’re interested in their dynamic. And the later parts aren’t so much morbid as simply darker; the book veers off to explore the darker sides of human nature and human relationships rather than delving too much into death or themes of mortality. Dickens’ impending death necessarily casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings, but it doesn’t make everything inherently morbid.

      Anyway, you should really give it a go! It was a great read.

  • 7. Marg  |  March 8, 2010 at 2:00 am

    I read and enjoyed The Terror by Dan Simmons last year, and did intend to borrow this book at some point. I just have to try and fit it in to the library borrowing schedule I guess!

    • 8. Corey  |  March 8, 2010 at 6:04 am

      You definitely should! It should also come out in paperback sometime soon (presumably), so you can wait for that moment, too. It’ll be a seriously hefty paperback, though!

  • […] has been on my reading list for quite some time now, and after Corey’s review a few weeks ago, I was even more motivated. As you’ve probably surmised, I am an absolute […]


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