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The Mystery of Edwin Drood

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Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Penguin Books
Date Published: 2002
1 review about The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Dickens Back Pages: The Mystery of the Mystery of Edwin Drood

  • Oct 28, 2010
In my review of Little Dorrit, I made much of the modern turn that Dickens appeared to be making in his later fiction, darkening his stories with the influences of technology and criminality as he felt his way toward a new form of writing. In Edwin Drood, so cruelly interrupted, he appears on the verge of an exciting novelistic style new to him and to the language he shaped as surely as Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

The style here is more direct, less oblique, more personal, less ironic, more sinister, more angry than Dickens usually is. John Jasper is a fully-realized modern misanthrope, and the most likely suspect for Drood's murder. His social cover as choir director in a sleepy cathedral town a half-days train ride from London barely masks the opium-addicted pervert lurking just below the surface. When he accidentally reveals this inner beast to his adoring nephew Drood, the worshipful nephew excuses it as anything other than what it really is. Significantly, Drood's chosen bride Rosa, who takes music lessons from Jasper, senses the sinister in his smooth exterior and recognizes the psychopathic beast beneath as terrifying.

In the completed, revised, and published numbers which constituted the first half of the story, Dickens has set up this tense triangle of Drood, Rosa, and Jasper, and stirred in the galvanic charge of a pair of orphaned foreign students sent to the cathedral for education near Rosa. Neville takes an instant and instinctive dislike to Drood, thus becoming a prime suspect upon his disappearance (not least for his foreignness), while sister Helena becomes, just as instantly, Rosa's best friend, and appears to have an almost controlling influence over her.

When Edwin Drood disappears, Dickens has just begun to work these ingredients into an intensely and intricately plotted resolution--then he died (just hours after writing his last portion). Much of the fraction of the second half that he completed was a first draft, and it shows in sometimes loose writing, an effect exacerbated by the understandable desire to assemble and publish as much of the unedited rest of the story as Dickens left lying about.

But the excitement in the story is evident. This would have been a great climax to a great story. Some critics think that Datchery, a character introduced late in the finished bits, would have served as the detective catalyst for resolving the story and exposing John Jasper's hidden life of anger and opium--and perhaps unmasking him as the killer. For this is an unfinished mystery, with the ultimate clues firmly buried with Dickens.  Was Jasper or Neville the killer, if Edwin Drood was even murdered at all? There is circumstantial evidence in the story, letters, instructions to the illustrators, and the illustrations themselves to support a cottage industry of guesswork about what might have been (most published versions of Edwin Drood include speculations and bibliographies of the theories), had Dickens not been so much older then, and younger than that now.

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