Monday, March 5, 2012

Drood by Dan Simmons

 If you are a lover of Victorian literature, Drood is a novel not to be missed.  The year is 1865.  Charles Dickens is at the top of his career and is secretly traveling with his mistress, Ellen Ternan and her mother by train to London.  The train engineer suddenly sees with horror that the tracks ahead over a river have been removed for repair and the warning signalman is too close to give them adequate time to stop.  The train continues off the tracks and into the river below. Dickens was in the only 1st class car that didn’t smash into the river.  He becomes a hero by rescuing many people in a horrific scene, but also meets the mysterious man Drood that seemingly takes the lives of the people he reaches.

Dickens is forever changed by this incident and it haunts him for the rest of his life, until his death five years to the date after the accident.  Dickens narrates the tale of the horror of accident and his meeting with Drood to his good friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins.  Together they journey to the Drood’s lair in the sewers deep beneath London.  After this secret meeting, Wilkie Collins chronicles Dickens and his own obsession with Drood and descent into madness.  During this time period Collins wrote his most famous novel, The Moonstone, and the Dickens started work on his last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Drood is written as narrated by Wilkie Collins writing it as a Victorian memoir to be read 125 years after his death.   This narration is brilliant.  Collins is addicted to drugs and finds himself slipping further and further into his addiction as the novel proceeds.  He is an unreliable narrator which puts a great twist on the novel.  Are the events real or are they the twisted imaginings of an opium addict?  While being friends with Dickens, Collins also had a great jealousy of him.  While his novels, A Woman in White and The Moonstone have more readers than Dickens’ novels during the same era, Dickens is by far the more famous personality with much more critical acclaim.   I loved in the narration when Collins used terms like “Dear Reader” that one would see in a Victorian novel.

Drood was a wonderful historical fiction novel that also combines great elements of mystery, suspense, and horror.  I finished the book yesterday and I’m still thinking about the ending.  The history in it was great.  I just read Jane Smiley’s biography of Charles Dickens in December and this book dovetailed nicely with the facts I know about Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  The description really set the mood for one to believe that you were in Victorian England.  It was also great to have another view on how The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood could have been inspired.

Both Dickens and Collins were represented as great fully released three-dimensional characters.  They both had flaws, but were both creative geniuses.  They were definitely the power house characters in this book, but the secondary characters were also wonderful including Dickens’ daughter (and Collins’ sister-in-law) Katey Dickens Collins, Inspector Field, Detective Hatchery and the mysterious villain Drood. 

Drood is a very large novel (my version is 770 pages), but it was a great meaty read and well worth the weeks I dedicated to reading it.  The plot was tightly woven and the length was needed to tell the entire story. Sadly it made it so I didn’t have enough time to read Oliver Twist in February, but I hope to still read that novel as part of the Victorian Challenge this year.  We read Drood as part of my Kewaunee Library book club, and I’ll admit that none of us had it finished by the time we met, although we were all intrigued with it. 

I must admit I was most intrigued with the details of the underground adventures of Dickens and Collins as they searched for Drood in the sewers of London.  It was an Indiana Jones like adventure in a setting that intrigues me.  I design sewers for a living so the history of the crypts, sewers and sanitation in the Victorian era was very, very interesting to me.  Such quotes as “I may have mentioned earlier that Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Board of Works, had proposed a complex system of new sewers to drain off the sewage from the Thames and to embank the mudflats along the shores.”  I need to look this stuff up – I’m fascinated!

Overall, Drood is a novel not to be missed.  It is a unique look at the Victorian period of history during the last five years of Dickens life told through the opium addicted author Wilkie Collins.  This book will definitely be one of my top books of this year.

Drood was not only my Kewaunee Library book club read, but I also read it as part of the Victorian Challenge 2012 and Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2012.

Book Source:  I won this book in a giveaway two years ago.


  1. I saw this on a bookstore shelf and wondered about ti, but never went back to give it a real look-see. Sounds pretty good!

    Thanks for sharing your review!

  2. I read this one a few years ago and enjoyed it, though I felt it dragged a bit towards the end. I love that you point out how fascinated you were with the sewer aspects - such a unique perspective! I couldn't help but notice how certain scenes were eerily reminiscent of Jack the Ripper...
    My review is here if you're interested. I've linked to yours!

  3. I am not a huge Dickens fan but this book sounds like it would be a great read for me. Thanks for the wonderful review!

  4. Wow, it sounds perfect! Wonderful review of what appears to be an intriguing and satisfying book. I really love Victorian London as a setting, and the premise is enticing (i.e., using this horrific event to explore the psyche and relationship of these two friends, authors, and rivals).

    It goes on this year's list, right after I read Claire Tomalin's bio of CD!

  5. What an interesting connection to your line of work! Wonderful review, as usual, Laura!

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  7. Congrats on reading and finishing this large book! The cover is brooding and a little scary, as it was meant to be. Good review.

  8. I had a really, really hard time putting this book down. It's just my kind of novel: lots of adventure, lots of tension. The narrator has a tendency to wander a bit, going off on tangents when he should be following the story, but I didn't see the extra information (and there's a lot of it thrown in) as detracting from it. Rather, I liked all the biographical notes on both Dickens and Collins, and I liked the interactions they had with one another, and the creative give-and-take of information that lead to novels like The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.