Is Charles Dickens the new Leonardo Da Vinci?
Da Vinci — artist, inventor and literal Renaissance man — made a big comeback in 2003 with the novel The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown used a familiar manhunt plot as a framework on which to hang breathless details of religious conspiracies, centuries-old gossip, and rumors of telltale images hidden in Da Vinci’s masterpieces. The Da Vinci Code launched a trend of similar historical-excavation thrillers with titles such as The Templar Legacy.
Six years later, authors are changing up Brown's formula by shifting from cultural icons to literature’s most notorious unsolved mysteries. Dickens, arguably the English language’s most popular and esteemed novelist, is getting what could be called the Da Vinci treatment. Certainly the author of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol casts a long shadow. In recent years, his influence has turned up in the work of journalistic fiction writer Tom Wolfe, leftist sci-fi author China Miéville, and HBO’s cop series “The Wire.”
Two novelists, working independently, have released books within weeks of each other that hit on one of fiction's most enduring questions: What is The Mystery of Edwin Drood? When Dickens died in 1870 (spoiler alert: Dickens is dead), he'd completed only half of his final book, his first whack at the then new genre of the detective novel. The Mystery of Edwin Drood doesn’t qualify as a major Dickens work, but its unfinished nature has left readers aching for closure for nearly 150 years. Rupert Holmes’ 1985 Broadway musical adaptation even allowed audiences to vote on whodunit.
Dan Simmons’ Drood and Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens each spin theories about The Mystery of Edwin Drood from opposite points of view. Drood spans the last five years of Dickens’ life and injects eerie occult themes, as recounted by his protégé and collaborator, Wilkie Collins. The Last Dickens begins with news of Dickens’ death reaching his American publisher, who travels from Boston to England and back to uncover clues as to how the book might have ended. Drood and The Last Dickens complement each other so well, one can almost imagine Simmons and Pearl entering into a literary conspiracy worthy of their own imaginations.
Pearl has already established himself as an author of historical mysteries informed by famous writers with his prior books, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow. Simmons is probably best known as a science-fiction author, but switches genres so frequently his work defies pigeonholing. Whether dabbling in horror, mystery, historical or science fiction, the love of literature informs Simmons' books, and his space operas overflow with homages to Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Keats.
Early on, Drood offers a harrowing account of a grisly 1865 railway accident that nearly cost Dickens his life. By all accounts the celebrity author acted heroically to help the injured. Dickens explains to Collins after the fact that he encountered a ghoulish, phantom-like figure known as Drood moving from body to body. Dickens and Collins in turn become obsessed with Drood, who allegedly runs a hidden criminal empire in tunnels beneath London, and bears traits of such pulpy villains as Fu Manchu and Count Dracula.
Gothic horrors run through the book, including cults, apparitions and heinous murders, but only provide part of the story. Drood also explores Dickens’ documented fascination with hypnotism, or “mesmerism,” Collins’ increasingly debilitating addiction to laudanum, and his historically supported claims of being haunted by a doppelgänger much of his life. The reader increasingly questions what’s real and what's not, although Collins never doubts Drood's existence.
Simmons clearly savors working with a narrator with personality defects: Collins never married, choosing to live with one mistress while having children with another. He begins Drood by addressing posterity, confident that he’ll be forgotten by future readers while Dickens’ memory lives on. (In an interview with the Onion's A.V. Club, Simmons acknowledges the relationship's similarity to the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus.) Drood recounts Collins’ addictions in excruciating detail, but also explores how, for both writers, the pull of imagination and dark, violent themes can be a different kind of compulsion.
At nearly 800 pages, Drood keeps you in intimate proximity with a highly disagreeable figure. But it’s also a page-turner that works both as a worm’s-eye-view character study as well as a deconstruction of the penny dreadful genre.
Pearl’s The Last Dickens serves as more of a melodramatic pastiche that succeeds mostly as a showcase for research and historical anecdote.
The Last Dickens focuses on James R. Osgood, a Boston publisher who worked with Dickens and eventually Mark Twain. We see the dawn of the modern-day book trade from his perspective, including the beginning of Houghton-Mifflin and Publishers Weekly. It was a time of rampant literary piracy and flouting of transatlantic copyright laws. The Last Dickens’ themes of intellectual property and authenticity find timely parallels with contemporary DVD copying and even aggregated journalism.
To ensure his company can publish the most authentic manuscript possible of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Osgood and a beautiful female bookkeeper travel to London to see if the late author left clues to its ending. In an unwieldy structure, Pearl also offers a novella-length flashback to Dickens’ 1867 American reading tour, as well as a third plot involving Dickens’ son Frank investigating the opium trade in Bengal, India.
The Last Dickens concocts a variety of sensational plot twists, including crazed fans, two-faced villains, and such weird supporting roles as a man who claims to be Dick Datchery, Dickens’ fictional detective from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Pearl has clearly done his homework about “bookaneers” and the British Empire's opium trade, but The Last Dickens proves more informative than exciting. In the end, the climactic revelations draw on some plausible details but seem utterly far-fetched.
Pearl isn't as willing to get in his characters’ heads the way Simmons does, so his heroes and bad guys come across as would-be Dickensian archetypes. Drood’s cast, invented or otherwise, bristles with idiosyncratic personality, including the charismatic, at times overbearing, Charles Dickens himself. And while The Last Dickens offers a sincere appreciation of Dickens and America’s 19th-century authors, it never matches the passion of passages such as Collins’ grudging appreciation of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens’ last completed novel. It’s a measure of Drood’s success that after 770 pages, you still hunger for more.
Drood by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company. $26.99, 775 pp.
The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl. Random House. $25, 386 pp.