It’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, his last and unfinished book. I was surprised that it took so long before the mystery actually began to emerge and that it’s more the story of Edwin Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, than it is of Drood himself. I was also surprised that much of it is written in the present tense, a style that I’m not too keen on. I haven’t read a Dickens novel for a few years and found the difference in style between this and modern mystery novels interesting. The build up to the mystery is so much more leisurely and descriptive than in modern novels, and I had to tone down my impatience for something mysterious to happen. Once I’d passed these hurdles I enjoyed the book immensely, even though I knew that the mystery is left open.
It begins dramatically with a scene in an opium den where Jasper lies under the influence of several pipes of opium, trembling and almost incoherent from the visions that came to him. According to the introduction to the book, Dickens took great care to make the scenes in the opium den authentic and had visited one in the east end of London, under police guidance. The mystery only becomes apparent when Drood has disappeared and cannot be found.
He had been engaged to Rosa Bud from their childhood days and both had realised that they didn’t want to get married. Before that Neville Landless and Edwin had come to blows over Rosa, but made up their differences just before Edwin disappears, but Jasper spreads suspicion that Neville may have killed him.
The novel abounds with wonderful characters – Canon Crisparkle, Neville’s mentor; Durdles a stonemason and his assistant, Deputy, whose tasks include making sure the drunken Durdles gets home safely, by the unlikely means of throwing rocks at him; and my favourite character, Mr Grewgious, a lawyer and Rosa’s guardian. Over and above these characters is the setting of Cloisterham (Rochester), with its Cathedral and sinister and dark background, ideal for secrecy and crime:
… a certain awful hush pervades the ancient pile, the cloisters, and the churchyard, after dark, which not many people care to encounter.
The inhabitants of Cloisterham feel
the innate shrinking of dust with the breath of life in it, from dust out of which the breath of life has passed. (page 105)
The mystery remains unsolved. What did happen to Edwin Drood? Was he killed and if so was it by John Jasper, his uncle, obsessed with his passion for Rosa? Who is Datchery, a stranger who arrives in Cloisterham six months after Edwin’s disappearance and what is his part in the story? And what is ‘Er Royal Highness the Princess Puffer’, the opium den woman’s connection with Jasper? I suppose it’s up to each reader to decide, although there is an account given by Forster, Dickens’s friend, in which he wrote that Dickens had intended it to be a story of the murder of a nephew by his uncle, but we’ll never know if that was so.
Also reviewed by A Library of My Own.