Drood is more than a book; it is an experience, a total immersion into Victorian England and the personal lives of two of the most famous authors of the day: Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Either way the reader chooses to experience this Dan Simmons book, by reading it or by listening to the audio book version, requires a major commitment of time and effort. The book itself is almost 800 pages long and the audio version of 24 CDs requires just under 30 hours of listening time. The audio book, read by Simon Prebble, is the route I chose to follow.
Drood begins with the June 1865 train wreck in which Dickens, his mistress and her mother barely escape with their lives. Amidst the mutilated, dead and dying passengers, Dickens encounters a ghoulish character called Drood; a man Dickens comes to believe is actually taking the lives of injured passengers rather than trying to save them. Dickens becomes obsessed with the idea of Drood and he recruits his close friend, Wilkie Collins, to help him track down the ghostlike man. Dickens, Collins, and various detectives and bodyguards will spend the next several months trying to catch up with the mysterious Drood, a man Dickens is told is responsible for more than 300 London murders. The chase will lead Dickens and Collins into London’s “Undertown,” a cavern-like part of the city, complete with its own underground river system, inhabited largely by criminal gangs, opium dealers and addicts, and London’s thousands of orphaned street children. Things become uncomfortable for the two authors when Drood takes an interest in them and begins to manipulate the pair in unexplainable ways.
There is much more to Drood, however, than the search for a man Dickens believes to be the most successful serial-killer in England’s history. This is the story of two men, both highly successful authors of their day, and their supposed friendship. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were friends and collaborators for a number of years and the working relationship seems to have served both men well. Simmons, though, chooses the voice of Wilkie Collins to narrate Drood and what Collins has to say about Dickens opens the reader to a whole different possibility about their relationship.
As portrayed here, Wilkie Collins is not a happy man, especially when it comes to comparing his literary status to that of the only man he considers a rival, Charles Dickens. In truth, Collins despises Dickens and cannot believe that the supremacy of his work over that of Dickens is not universally recognized. After all, he has written a masterpiece in The Woman in White and has even created a new genre, that of the detective novel, with The Moonstone. But Dickens is still the literary king of his day – and Charles Dickens is not above reminding Collins of that fact at every opportunity, even if he has to create those opportunities himself.
As Collins struggles to surpass the reputation of Dickens, or at least to equal it, his use of opium increases to such a degree that he begins to lose touch with reality. Collins begins to suspect Dickens of murder (as research for a future novel) and has opium-induced dreams of his own in which he murders Dickens and hides his remains so that “the Inimitable” can never be buried in Westminster Abbey. Opium plays such a large role in Drood – and in Collins’s perception of reality – that the reader will often wonder what is real and what is not. Does Drood really exist or is Dickens making his old friend the victim of a sadistic practical joke? One has to decide for himself but, in the end, it does not really matter because this book is really about the clash of two massive egos and the drug culture of the day. The mysterious Drood is just the hook on which Simmons hangs this clever character-study.
Dan Simmons has written a wonderfully atmospheric, character-driven thriller that is almost certain to appeal to lovers of British literature. The audio book reader, Simon Prebble, does a remarkable job in making Dickens, Collins, and a cast of assorted characters come to life. He does such a good job of providing distinct accents and speech patterns for the main characters that they are soon recognizable by the “sounds of their voices,” a feat few audio book readers even come close to achieving.
Rated at: 4.0