Real-life novelists in creepy 19th-century London whodunnit

2010-07-28 00:00



Dan Simmons


PROFESSIONAL jealousy, drug addiction and its effects, and a complex narrative combine for a page-turning thriller in Drood, the latest novel by Dan Simmons.

Having not been familiar with his work, I was unsure what to expect. But once you get your head around the 19th-century style of writing, this book is hard to put down.

Narrated by novelist Wilkie ­Collins, whose body of work includes The Woman In White, Drood is set in the years after Charles Dickens ­narrowly escaped dying in a horrific train crash in 1865.

Speaking about his experience to Collins afterwards, Dickens reveals that, while trying to help rescue some of the victims of the crash, he encountered a ghoulish figure, named Drood, who instead of a nose has “black slits in [a] grub-white face” and “small, sharp, irregular teeth”. Is he helping the victims or stealing their souls? Dickens isn’t sure but he’s determined to seek out this scary man.

The last thing Collins wants to do is find Drood, but he accompanies his friend and soon finds himself caught between Dickens and a retired police detective who is also looking for Drood, who he believes is responsible for more than 300 murders.

What Simmons does so well is to never let you know whether Drood is real or a drug-induced horror. Collins, you see, is addicted to opium and injections of morphia. Together they fuel hallucinations, ranging from a green woman on the stairs to a double of Wilkie Collins himself.

There is also a slow disintegration of the friendship between the two ­literary giants as Collins’ jealousy of Dickens’ success and his anger at the critics, who he feels do not appreciate his greatness, grows.

Collins is not an endearing character — he’s arrogant, mean to the women in his life, and condescending — but he holds your attention and keeps you wanting to know more.

I must admit, however, that when the end finally came, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down. Compared to the rest of the novel, the final pages are disjointed and feel a little rushed. That said, Drood remains a complex whodunnit that will keep you guessing. A great read on a cold winter’s day.

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