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.
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.
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.
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.
Other stories in this collection not yet read.
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.
Not one of my favourites, this is perhaps an unfair claim to lodge against a half-finished work. Drood, Dickens 15th novel and the last of his 24 "major" works, was to be published in 12 monthly volumes, but he sadly passed away while putting the finishing touches on instalment 6.
What we are left with is an intriguing mystery in which the core questions seem to have obvious answers, but the purpose of it all remains undefined. Edwin Drood, a seemingly attractive and nice lad, if a bit cocksure, mutually breaks off his engagement with Rosa Bud, his lovely fiancee-since-childhood, receives an ominous warning from the mistress of a local opium den, and then goes walking with a new friend from Ceylon before disappearing into the mist, never to be seen again. Amidst the murky cast of characters who inhabit the world around the intimidating Rochester Cathedral are the two orphans from Ceylon, a quick-witted reverend, an alcoholic gravekeeper, a playwriting secretary and a mysterious new arrival to town (the latter two of whom may be one and the same).
Aesthetically, the novel is a surprise turn, coming after Dickens' dense, autumnal late works like Bleak House and (especially) Our Mutual Friend. Flowers bloom, music fills the air, and Dickens' authorial voice is less controlling, allowing the characters to speak quickly and to the point. The 1860s had been a decade of turmoil for Dickens on a personal level, and one feels like he was breaking away from the heaviness that characterised his most recent novels. There's more in common, perhaps, with his Uncommercial Traveller series written across the mid-to-late '60s, in which Dickens captures moments of life in London and the countryside. At the same time, this has a major drawback in that most of the characters, including Edwin himself, lack many defining traits. Indeed, Helena and Neville - the Ceylonese orphans - are so vague that we're still not sure whether they're merely "dark" from the sun, or are in some way natives!
Much of this is intentional, of course. The late arriving figures of Tartar and Datchery were intended to be filled out later, and no doubt the same is true of Helena and Neville. The novel plays more with Reverend Crisparkle, who seems to be the Inspector Bucket of this piece, and Rosa Bud, who emerges perhaps not fully formed but at least a woman with some great level of initiative, combining the best parts of both Lizzie and Bella from Our Mutual Friend. At the heart of the piece is Edwin's uncle, John Jasper, a man deep in unrequited love and addled by his addiction to opium. Much like Edwin, though, John's character journey comes to an unwitting end and, sadly, it feels like the next instalment would've been the beginning of Dickens piecing together all of the disparate threads.
Evidence from Dickens' family, friends and letters suggests that he wasn't that concerned about the two key mysteries - who is Datchery and what happened to Edwin - being all that ... mysterious. Indeed, he wrote to one friend a suggestion that the novel might become, in its final chapters, a meditation on the evil of the murderer, rather than a surprise revelation. This is actually very fitting, when you consider one of the most tortured characters from Our Mutual Friend, who spends the second half of the novel preparing for, then covering up, a vicious crime, in chapters that are the closest - give or take Lady Dedlock - to internal character study Dickens ever came.
On the subject of endings, I thoroughly recommend Gwyneth Jones' 2012 adaptation for the BBC, of which the final 40 minutes or so comprise entirely original material. While removing Tartar (who seems intended to become the male romantic lead in Dickens' original mind), Jones follows the commonly believed (obvious?) answers to Datchery and the killer, but then throws in numerous surprises, none of which seem at all unreasonable given what came before. In fact, I daresay a few of them sound downright likely.
So, is Drood worth reading despite being unfinished? I'd probably rank it below any other Dickens novel, primarily because of its half-completed status. At the same time, once you've read it, it's fascinating to gaze into the 150 years of Drood-specific arguments that have come from academics and writers of all kinds. There's some great beauty in this novel, particularly the Cathedral which looms large as a character and which almost certainly (as Gwyneth Jones knew) would have been the setting for the book's climax, whatever that may have been. As a work, the book lacks the sublime level of symbolism that characterised Little Dorrit's creaking buildings, Bleak House's combustible crooks, or Our Mutual Friend's piles of dust. It also lacks satisfying character arcs, since everyone except for Rosa seems to be half-hidden from us, by the very nature of the piece.
Still, for Dickens completists, and those who don't mind a read that ends mid-thrust, it's not half bad.
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...