Would you trust a junkie’s description of even the simplest sequence of events? Me neither. Drood is a decent example of the “Unreliable Narrator” subset of literature, though not for the squeamish or faint hearted.
As the book begins, the train upon which Charles Dickens is riding becomes involved in an accident; the railway is working on a track and the train cannot stop in time to avoid the gap. The train’s speed is such that the locomotive and baggage cars vault the gap, leaving the first class carriages dangling from a connection not meant to take such strain. Dickens scrambles out, assisting his companions to safety then descends into the ravine below to see if he can aid the passengers who fell there during the accident. In the ravine, he spies a man of ghoulish visage, who appears to be doing something to the accident victims lying there…and the people so attended subsequently die.
Readers get a hint of the “unreliable narrator” theme with this introductory scene. Dickens’ retelling of the scene puts himself as the central character and most noble rescuer, diffidently modest about his status as famous and beloved novelist. A railway employee’s description of the exact same events presents Dickens as a pretentious pompous self-absorbed busybody, with whom the railway employees are exasperated to the point of being quite sharp with this upper class ponce as their attempts at helping the accident victims are being thwarted by his efforts.
For a Gothically overblown, laudanum-tinted phantasm of an 800 page novel, this is actually fairly easy to describe. There are two intertwined subplots in Drood, as long as readers keep in mind that the whole thing is being narrated by Drood.
One subplot, which at least at first appears to be the primary one, concerns Dickens’ quest for and attempt to eliminate Drood, and Collins’ attempt to work with a private detective, who is attempting to reinstate himself with New Scotland Yard by himself capturing this dread serial killer. The other is simply Collins’ friendship with and admiration of Dickens, who served as his mentor for many years; the two collaborated on a number of works, acted together in their own plays and socialized a great deal over the years. Indeed, Dickens’ daughter married Collins’ brother, providing yet another knot in the web of interrelationships among the upper classes in Victorian England.
As Collins becomes more embroiled in the search for Drood as the first thread winds up to a denouement, he becomes more distrustful of Dickens’ own motivations in the matter and by about 100 pages from the end of the novel, concludes that the only avenue of action left to him is to tip Dickens over into a lime pit thereby ensuring the dissolution of England’s most beloved novelist. The remaining few pages of the book winds down the thread that most readers have by this point (I hope) decided is the more reality-based one, with the death by apoplexy of Dickens, and his secret burial in Westminster Abbey.
The narrator, author Wilkie Collins, progresses deeper into his addiction to narcotics, and with that increased opium (and derivatives) usage comes an increase in the number and complexity of his hallucinations sufficient to render even the more straightforward portions of the novel suspect—as it all seems real to Collins, it’s hard for readers to know whether he’s describing events neutrally and objectively or merely relaying his own hallucinations…of which there are several. At one point during one of Dickens’ stage performances, Collins suddenly sees the audience transformed into corpses being held at a morgue. Collins is haunted by an evil doppelganger who takes dictation when Collins himself is incapacitated by “rheumatoid gout”, but changes the writing subtly to suit his own diabolical ends, discrediting Collins. He also sees a decomposition-green woman with yellowed tusks wandering the halls of his house, and hears the cries of a servant girl Collins (may have) walled up in the cellar of his house…or did she run off with a soldier boy to Brighton? The inspector with whom Collins is working to expose Drood ends up killed rather messily in an attack on the latter…or does he die quietly and peacefully in his bed of heart failure?
In the end, readers must decide whom they want to believe in this discursive bloated book, Collins or Dickens, and no higher compliment can I pay to a tale told in the style of Wilkie Collins! I have to admire an author who can use both pathetic and bathetic correctly in a sentence, and where else would one get away with such a juxtaposition than in a novel as ornately complex as the decorations scheme of a Victorian drawing room?
There’s a fair bit of truth in Simmons’ fiction; he’s obviously done a great deal of research into the lives of both Collins and Dickens, and included a great deal of that research into Drood. As there’s a great deal of fiction here–it is a novel, after all–I’d advise a fair familiarity with Charles Dickens’ and Wilkie Collins’ lives and bodies of work before starting Drood as that’ll make differentiating between fact and fiction a bit easier. I’m not sure whether to call it faux memoir fiction masquerading as factual biography, as with Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII or homage/pastiche to Collins’ writing style. Something else to keep in mind is, that if you’re a fan of Simmons’ previous works, this one is very different from those; I haven’t read any of them so can’t be sure what the differences are, though would consider doing so after this, but am willing to take the word of other reviewers.