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Drood by Dan Simmons

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

The trouble with unreliable narrators is that there are many ways to be unreliable.  A narrator can be self-delusional (The Catcher in the Rye), or brilliant but completely demented (Pale Fire) or unaware of the jumble of consciousness (Finnegan’s Wake).   The narrator’s purpose might be to reduce his own culpability (Lolita), or to demonstrate the naiveté of adolescence (Huckleberry Finn).   The narrator could be schizophrenic (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or retarded (Flowers for Algernon).  No respecter of boundaries, an unreliable narrator can surface in literary fiction (The Sound and the Fury) or in dime store murder mysteries (The Murder of Roger Aykroyd). Films are not immune from this literary trope (The Usual Suspects and Amadeus).  How then must a reader deal with an unreliable narrator who was one of the first practitioners of this maddening craft?  In Drood by Dan Simmons, the subject is the last few years of the life of England’s greatest novelist, Charles Dickens, and the narrator is his close friend and fellow novelist, Wilkie Collins, whose novel The Moonstone is one of the prime examples of this literary high-wire act.

Dickens survived a bloody train wreck a few years before his death and the memory of this tragedy (and the unwelcome attention it brought him, traveling at the time incognito with his mistress) fuels Dickens’ imagination.  Collins addresses his story to a “Dear Reader” who lives a century into the future, weaving a tale about his relationship with the Inimitable, which starts out with the two novelists as approximate equals, but ends up with Dickens garnering all the acclaim, much to the irritation of Collins.  Drood, a dark symbol of evil, first appears to Dickens at the train wreck, and introduces Dickens and Collins to the demi-monde thriving in the sewers and subterranean caverns beneath the streets of London.  Drood becomes the title character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’ last and unfinished novel.  As envy and jealousy grow in Collins, a man who cannot function without his laudanum, he decides that his mentor Dickens must die, that his mentor and Drood have hatched a scheme of monstrous evil that will endanger all around them, including Collins’ frail brother, who is unhappily married to one of Dickens’ daughters.

For anyone not familiar with the renown that Dickens enjoyed those last years of his life, or with his sold-out stage appearances where he read from his novels with such force and drama that the audience was often swept away with tears, Drood accurately recreates this Victorian world with its love of euphemism and strict social stratification.  As the opium requirements for Collins rise and his dreams increase in feverish intensity, Collins goes from welcome house guest at Gad’s Hill, Dickens’ country estate, to outcast and pariah.  Collins plots his revenge, enlisting the help of London private detectives and grave diggers.  He is visited by a doppelganger, another Wilkie Collins who may or may not be real, whose appearance further confuses the novelist and drives him more and more daft.

Wilkie Collins outlived Dickens by two decades, so gets the last word in this fictional tour-de-force.  But by the end of the story, the reader has seen enough to make an assessment quite contrary to the one that Collins wishes to convey.  Though the genre of taking acclaimed authors and making them characters in other stories is a well-established literary convention, Simmons accomplishes much more in this leisurely tale.  He gives the reader an accurate portrait of an age, and does so within the limits of the plausible, while simultaneously creating a mystery and horror story set in the past but headed for the future.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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