John Jasper is haunted and restless. Unhappily settled as choirmaster in the provincial cathedral town of Cloisterham, Jasper finds himself striving for the divine in his music even as he struggles against madness brought on by ennui and opiates. Aware of his unraveling, Jasper believes his salvation may be found in the arms of Rosa, his prized pupil. His only obstacle is her fiance, Edwin Drood - Jasper's nephew.
The Penguin Classics edition has extensive introductory material and appendices that go into exhaustive detail about what Dickens's plans for the novel are known to have been, using his own notes and reports of conversations he had with his illustrator. There's a helpful appendix on opium usage in England as well that explains some of what Dickens is likely to have been thinking about when creating the character of Jasper Johns.
The half-novel itself is, as always, very funny and very tightly plotted; it's a pity that Dickens did not live long enough to finish the story, because it would undoubtedly have been excellent, and I'd love to know how he meant to tie all of the pieces of the mystery together in the end. (The extra material in the Penguin edition hints at how this might have been done; as usual I wish I'd left the introductory material for after I read the story, as Penguin introductions tend to give away too much.)
However, if the idea of reading an unfinished novel is discouraging, the intrigued reader can find some hints as to the murderer's identity in the work of Dicken's biographer and friend, John Forster, (The Life of Charles Dickens, 1876 in two volume II: p. 451-452). Forster tells of correspondence he received on the subject from Dickens:
"...was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle; the originality of which was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell, to which his wickedness, all elaborately elicited from him as if told of another, had brought him. Discovery by the murderer of the utter needlessness of the murder for its object, was to follow hard upon commission of the deed; but all discovery of the murderer was to be baffled till towards the close, when, by means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the person murdered was to be identified but the locality of the crime and the man who committed it. So much was told to me before any of the book was written; and it will be recollected that the ring, taken by Drood to be given to his betrothed only if their engagement went on, was brought away with him from their last interview. Rosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who was himself, I think, to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer."
Ever since his involvement in a train accident in 1865 on his return from France, and perhaps even before, Dickens was ailing with a variety of illnesses, some of which were at least aggravated by overwork and his refusal to reduce his schedule. It was thus in 1869 that he began writing his final novel of which the first six of the originally intended twelve monthly parts were published in 1870. He died in June of that year with the mystery unfinished.
Edwin Drood begins in an opium den and the air of mystery that surrounds that venue grows as the story progresses. At the center of the story is Edwin Drood, his fiancee Rosa Budd, his uncle John Jasper, Canon Crisparkle, and the Landless twins, with others to numerous (as was Dickens' way) to mention. The style is fresh and new for Dickens, especially when contrasted with the heavier more convoluted style of Our Mutual Friend which immediately preceded it. The first half of the story introduces conflict and doubt for the young Drood and we see glimmers of danger headed his way in the remaining finished sections. Although incomplete, the novel has appeal and is well worth reading.
Peopled with so many interesting, but lesser characters, I can't say why this book of just over 250 pages has taken me over a week to finish. It has it's problems. The back cover of my edition calls it "not one of the writer's greatest works", mainly as Dickens didn't get to complete it. The mystery doesn't take place until over 100 pages in, and one of the main characters has an unfortunate nickname, turning some of the lines unintentionally funny. But Dickens has such a way of weaving these well-defined characters, giving them bits of humor, bits of anger and remorse that they are far more real than most written in his time.
Actually, even though the novel is unfinished, it’s a satisfying read. Edwin Drood disappears. He is a young, happy-go-lucky, man who was engaged in an arranged marriage. Just as Edwin and his fiance break off their engagement, he disappears. Public suspicion falls on a friend of his, another young man. But all clues tend to point to his uncle Jasper, who seems obsessed with Edwin’s fiance. Jasper is also a secret opium addict, smoking it in the opening scene in a den in London.
No one knows where Dickens intended to take the novel. Is Edwin really dead? Or has he just disappeared because of the termination of his engagement? We’ll never know, but that hasn’t stopped other writers from speculating.
I won't go over the story/plot here; it is very well known. Movies have been made; I believe there was a stage production or two as well, and there are (as I saw written somewhere) entire websites and pundits devoted to solving the mystery.
This edition has a preface by Peter Ackroyd, a Dickens biographer, and an appendix by GK Chesterton. Chesterton provides several theories about what may have followed if Dickens had been alive to finish his work.
One more thing: I read this on the heels of Dan Simmons' most excellent novel "Drood," and it puts a lot into perspective.
I would definitely recommend it -- if you MUST have an ending, then don't read it, but as I said above...the getting there is most of the fun. Most excellent.
Anyway, Edwin Drood is a young man under the care of John Jasper. He is engaged to Rosebud. Well, not exactly engaged, there is an understanding (from when they were both young) that they would marry. Friends with Jasper is Mr. Crisparkle a parson who lives with his mother. Also included in this party is Mr. Grewgious, of when Rosebud is a ward.
Mr. Crisparkle, soon after the novel begins is charged with the education of Neville and Helena Landless. Neville is known for having a temper and falls in love with the beautiful Rosa and he thinks Edwin does not deserve her. Helena becomes Rosa’s good friend and confidant to which she tells Helena about Jasper’s love (obsession I call it) for her. (I should mention that Jasper happens to be her music teacher.)
To end this rather quickly, we skip forward about fifty pages, and Edwin and Rosa have ended their arrangement having love for one another only that of brother and sister with no romantic inclination at all. Shortly after this agreement is made, Edwin goes missing and is presumed dead. Most everyone thinks poor Neville did it (He threatened Edwin a couple of times.) They were never able to prove one way or another, but Neville still was shunned by most of the town.
The book skips forward six months and Jasper is still adamant it was Neville, Crisparkle defends his charge, Neville lives in seclusion seeing only Crisparkle and Helena, and Rosa finds a way to run off from Jasper’s unwanted attentions.
And yet we are without any explanation as to what happened to Edwin Drood.
Dickens is amazing. This being his last book he has writing an interesting and engaging story down pat. I extremely enjoy his use of nicknames for most of the characters (which at times were confusing); he calls Crisparkles mother the China Shepardess, and Rosa is given the nickname of Pussy by Edwin, and the opium dealer is given the name of Her Royal Highness the Princess Puffer. (I didn’t mention that Jasper has an addiction to opium.)
So the downside of Edwin Drood is that it is unfinished. Not that the blame can really be laid on Dickens himself, it's not as if he just up and decided to push off this mortal coil before finishing his story. Unfortunately, he left behind the slow-build. The endless character introductions and the beginning of plot-weaving. Due to it being a mystery novel, many, MANY characters are introduced and at one time I considered drawing a chart just to keep it straight.
The afterword of my edition reflects upon other writers that have written about - or even tried to finish - Edwin Drood. The question you would ask is who was the murderer. The consensus seems to be it is John Jasper, which to me is highly unfortunate as the entire set up of Mr. Jasper is basically "this guy is a creep and he probably did it". In my dream ending, Rosa would have been the murderer - content to not be married to Edwin but not willing to let him marry anyone else either.
Overall, I had a very difficult time reading the build-up knowing there would be no payoff. I considered not finishing the book a number of times. This work is for hard-core Dickens lovers only.
There is a lot to like in this, the range of characters, the light and shade, the humour and the underlying mystery. I wonder where it was going to go...
2.5 stars- worth checking out for Dickens fans.