In Dan Simmons 2007's horror/historical fiction opus, The Terror, the author chronicled the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845, in which two British vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, embarked on what was meant to be a five year journey into the north Atlantic through the North-West Passage to the colonies in Canada. In this exhaustively researched tome, Simmons offered up a history lesson like no other, imbued with horrors both human and otherwise, resulting in one of the most effective marriages of historical fiction and supernatural suspense I've ever had the pleasure of reading. When I'd heard Simmons' next book would be a marginally fictionalized account of the final years of Charles Dickens' life - specifically, the years in which he was inspired to write his unfinished final masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood - I could only imagine what the author had in store for us. Now, after finally reading the haunting and fascinating Drood, all I can say is that Dickens would be proud.
Drood is presented as a posthumously released memoir of Dickens' close friend, confidant, and fellow writer, Wilkie Collins; a work left behind with the instruction that it not be released until a century after his death in an effort to protect his dear friend's reputation. Or so we are told...
Opening with the railway disaster at Staplehurst in which Dickens nearly lost his life, Collins recounts Dickens story of how he heroically worked alongside rescuers in hopes of saving as many from the wreckage as possible. It is here where he first encounters the mysterious Edwin Drood. Described as a pasty, hissing specter of a man, Dickens is convinced that Drood is here to claim the souls of the dead and dying, and becomes obsessed with the man. Collins is drawn into Dickens investigation of Drood, at first fascinated by his friend's preoccupation with the man, but, ultimately becoming just as invested. As Dickens and Collins scour the dark underbelly of London on a self-destructive mission fueled not only by curiosity and fear, but by an all-consuming envy and hubris that threatens to destroy them both.
Drood is a beast of a book, weighing in at nearly 800 pages, but is a surprisingly fast read thanks to the engaging voice of his narrator, as well as Simmons' efficient juggling of myriad subplots and the story proper. While some of the narrative dumps in which Collins gives us a blow-by-blow accounts of everything from his addiction to his relationship with his mother occasionally prove grating, the narrator's verbosity is an integral part of the story structure, and makes sense once Collins' true colors are revealed. It becomes apparent that the tenuous nature of Collins and Dickens friendship/rivalry has a way of coloring the former's recollection of events, made all the more troubling by Collins' somewhat petty and spiteful tone that barely mask his disdain for the man he calls his friend.
Simmons' typically brainy and historically accurate prose lends this "memoir" a sense of authenticity that is further strengthened by the author's impeccable research and the wonderfully imaginative manner in which he merges his facts with his fiction. Mesmerizing, horrifying, and utterly satisfying, Drood is tale that is as eloquent and lyrical as the work of Dickens, himself. Highly recommended!