Dan Simmons is one of our most interesting, genre-jumping writers. Having made his name in science fiction and fantasy, lately he has turned his talents to historical fiction with an eerie edge, most recently in the bestselling The Terror and now in Drood, which purports to tell the "truth" behind Charles Dickens' uncompleted novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
As narrator, Simmons employs Dickens' real-life confidante, the writer Wilkie Collins, famed for his own The Woman in White. Of course, Collins is rabidly jealous of Dickens, whom he describes as "a careful man with careless impulses," going so far as to confess to hating "the Inimitable," as the outsized Dickens is known among his friends. (Dickens directs his own grandchildren to call him "Venerables.")
But how much of what Collins says is to be believed? Herein lies something of a challenge for the reader of Drood, as Collins — Salieri to Dickens' Mozart, pickled all the while on laudanum and downright delusional — typifies the unreliable narrator, and nearly 800 pages in the company of such a one can be trying. Trying, too, are the innumerable parentheticals and asides of the novel's first 100 pages, where Simmons seems to be thrashing the history from his story. But once that story line is seized, Drood rolls on, breaking in wave upon wave of wonders: Victorian banter at its best, Egyptian ritual, writerly backstabbing, mesmerism and healthy doses of Dickens' biography among the mix.
In Drood, Dan Simmons has created a classic ghost story modeled along Victorian lines, one featuring a first-rate villain in Drood, the Lord of London's Undertown, a literal city beneath the city. Simmons withholds little in imagining the mesmeric hold his Drood, Dickens and Collins hold over one another, and in the process he creates a world entire, fully realized and fun. Drood is erudite and engaging entertainment.
James Reese is the author of "The Dracula Dossier."