Read along with The Poisoned Martini each week and examine the the origins of mysteries in the earliest examples of the genre.
In April 1870, Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood began appearing in installments. It would be Dickens’ last novel and one left unfinished at the time of his death. Presumably this was to be a true mystery story akin to The Moonstone and The Woman in White, novels written by Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins. Unwittingly, it became one of the greatest mysteries in literature as none have convincingly determined or discovered Dickens’ true intentions as to the novel’s conclusion.
Since its ending cannot truly be spoiled, this novel makes for a perfect study of the mystery story and its construction. Join me in reading this unfinished classic and speculated as to what might have been.
The novel begins in “an ancient English Cathedral town…”
The opening is a bit odd in its questioning of how a Cathedral could have come to be in its locale and the appearance (or lack thereof) of some “grim spike.” Yet the second paragraph may contain some illumination.
“Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around.” This man sees he is not alone in a den of iniquity. Asleep are a Chinaman and a Lascar. A third person present, “a haggard woman … is blowing at a kind of pipe.” She tells the man, “Ye’ve smoked as many as five since ye come in at midnight.”
Unseemingly for Victorian times, the first chapter takes readers to an opium den! The opening paragraph has been a strange vision, but by chapter’s end “the jaded traveller” has made haste to return to the Cathedral. Who might this man be? And what importance may this chapter hold?
Our story begins in earnest in chapter two with the close of choir practice. Two gentlemen are conversing about the choir master, Mr. Jasper, who has flit away in haste. Mr. Dean and Mr. Tope discuss how the man has taken ill of late and are joined by the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. It seems Jasper arrived dazed but “has gone home quite himself.” His nephew’s imminent arrival in town is also remarked upon.
Asked to look in on Mr. Jasper, Crisparkle inquires after the man’s health and comments on Jasper’s nephew, Drood. Jasper expresses that he loves his nephew dearly. Crisparkle leaves just as Edwin Drood arrives.
Being only six-and-twenty, Jasper is part uncle, part brother to Drood. “A look of intentness and intensity–a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection” is evident in Jasper’s face as he regards his nephew.
Drood is at both elated that it’s the birthday of his betrothed and dismayed that he’s part of an arranged marriage. “Couldn’t they leave us alone?” he asks, referring to the absent parents who’ve made the contract. He goes on to point out how lucky Jasper is that he’s free to choose for himself. Jasper, however, laments, “The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain.” He also confesses that he’s taken opium “for a pain–an agony–that sometimes overcomes” him.
Though Jasper turns serious for a moment, laying bare his inner self and warning of his ambitions and aspirations, Drood blithely confesses, “I am afraid I am but a shallow, surface kind of fellow.” And then he proceeds to lay out his grand plans for his future.
My first experience with this story comes from its musical incarnation. The Mystery of Edwin Drood first ran on Broadway in 1986 and came to Syracuse on tour two years later. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the story. Much like the myriad possibilities in a game of Clue. I sought out the novel to read soon after seeing the play. By revisiting the book once again, I hope to glean new insights and present a novel idea.
Stop by next Monday for Chapters III through V. In the meantime, consider this start to the story. Is Dickens setting up a traditional murder mystery? Drood’s comment about his “shallowness” sounds ripe for giving characters motive. Or is Dickens creating a tragic character study centered on Drood’s Uncle Jasper?