When I picked up “Drood”, Dan Simmons’ novel at Costco a couple of months ago, I (literally) weighed the decision to whether to read the book or not. At 775 pp, this book is no small commitment.
The story is set up as a historical fiction intersection with horror and covers the last five years of Charles Dickens’ life after a near-fatal train crash in 1865. The tale is related by Dickens’ friend-colleague-competitor and fellow author Wilkie Collins. In the confusion of the crash, Dickens meets a mysterious figure calling himself “Drood”. Dickens and then Collins become obsessed with getting to the bottom of the Drood mystery — is he an real or an apparition? Just an odd man, or some sort of Jack the Ripper type villain?
Initially, Dickens and Collins start off as sort of a literary Holmes & Watson which is good and entertaining, but they transform pretty quickly into Mozart & Salieri territory, with Collins being the embittered, prideful, jealous, less-talented one. And you know, that’s really not what I’m looking for in a narrator. Though to be truthful, Dickens is portrayed as a know-it-all, foppish prick who knows he’s smarter and more talented than everyone else and isn’t afraid to demonstrate it (of course, with appropriate good Victorian manners).
The horror parts of the story are actually pretty well done, creepy and somewhat gruesome — though my mind kept slipping back to the film “Young Sherlock Holmes” for its stylized Middle-Eastern evil — but they worked for me.
In the end, the book is a mixed bag — I believe Simmons really tried to “channel” 19th century writing techniques — and that’s not all to the good. There are way too many “Dear Reader”s in there for it not to get a little grating. And exposition? We got exposition. Every time I felt the story taking me away someplace really good and creepy (and it certainly did), Simmons would stop the thread, make a thudding plot turn, or go off tangentially detailing poor Wilkie’s laudanum addiction (though maybe if I’d liked Collins a little more, that would have been alright). I think if this book was a little tighter — maybe with 150-200 fewer pages, it would have been a real humdinger. Maybe that’s what this 19th century tale needed most of all — a 21st century editor.
In short: Great Expectations? Maybe. Close, but not quite. Three stars of five.