Charles Dickens stars in a thriller.
What? Charles Dickens was the acolyte of a Master Mesmerist? He and protégé Wilkie Collins made frightening and surreptitious trips to a filthy London underworld lodged in the city sewer? Collins spent years obsessively plotting Dickens’s murder?
Only in the mind of sci/horror/fantasy writer (“Olympus” and “The Terror”) Dan Simmons. But Simmons does not rely entirely on imagination in his massive new literary thriller Drood. Rather, he draws heavily on the biographies of both Dickens and Collins to concoct a sort of Victorian fantasy novel as fully rooted in historic fact as it is in flights of fancy.
In June of 1865 the real Charles Dickens was involved in a horrific accident. The first seven cars of the train in which he was riding plunged off a bridge. Dickens, who tended to the wounded and dying, was unharmed physically but badly shaken emotionally. He never fully recovered from the incident and died five years later, to the day.
Simmons uses this incident to spin a story that imagines that in train’s wreckage Dickens met a shadowy character named Drood, an unsavory Egyptian who practiced the dark art of mesmerism and who would inspire Dickens’s last, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Or is that only what Collins imagined that Dickens had told him? It’s hard to be sure of anything in this cleverly constructed novel in which the narrator (Collins) is a troubled man rendered doubly unreliable by his opium-induced fantasies and his crippling jealousy of Dickens.
But if Collins is untruthful as a storyteller he is compelling as a character. His paranoid yet learned voice moves carefully through the last five years of Dickens’s life, ever intertwining fact with fantasy until it is impossible to determine whether it is Simmons or Collins who is most in control of the story.
Unfortunately, one of the attractions of “Drood” is also its biggest problem. Simmons has done his homework and the many details of Dickens’s life that enrich this novel are a pleasure.
But do you really want a novel about Dickens to compete with “Bleak House” in length? Some readers undoubtedly will and for them “Drood” will be the equivalent of a splendidly caloric Victorian bonbon.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.