The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: The reissue of this classic is clearly the result of the BBC adaptation of Dickens' last novel. But it poses two questions for the reader, why should we spend time on an unfinished story, and why in any event yet another edition? The quality of Dickens' writing answers the first of these questions - this novel is as fascinating, atmospheric and complex as any more complete work, but perhaps the jury is still out on the second.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2012
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1849904278

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If you have never come across 'Drood' before, there are certain significant factors which make this a 'must read'. It is Dickens' last work, and he died without completing it. Given that this is a detective story, one of the very first in that tradition, it is doubly intriguing, because although we are clearly being fed clues and hints throughout, at the point where the text ends we aren't even fully sure even if a crime has been committed. So as the basis for endless speculation about what really happens this novel could hardly be bettered. We certainly have potential villains and victims, but we also have a number of likely red herrings; complex threads of romantic interest, but again it is by no means clear exactly which way these will resolve; and a shadowy detective figure, whose speculations certainly have no sense of conclusion.

And the novel creates a fascinating environment, the old town, the murky characters attached to the functioning of the cathedral, but also the sinister world of the opium den and the London tenements. And at the centre is the twisted figure of the choir master John Jasper, outwardly respectable but harbouring evil intent. And for lovers of Dickens' immersive, detailed style, this is the master at his best - the atmosphere oozes from each scene, but with a little more economy and terseness than sometimes was his approach. In focus too this is the 'later' Dickens, for his main interest here is not the social conditions or campaigning of his earlier work (although there is here a view on the workings of racial prejudice), but on the psychology of sexual repression, with hints of the preoccupations of modernist novels of the 1920s.

But ultimately the question must be asked if this new edition is any way an advantage. Certainly the feel of the paperback and the modern typeface has an advantage over many of the tiny cramped editions which are the norm of the 'collected Dickens', and together they create the sense that you are reading a modern thriller rather than something approaching two hundred years old. It is contemporary in a way that make even the standard Penguin editions feel dated and over-scholarly.

And perhaps the key distinction of this edition is that it has been generated from the television adaptation, which in predictably media fashion had been created with an 'end' to the mystery. So one debate must be whether an ending should be provided at all. An edition obviously targeted at a wide and mixed readership probably needed a sense of an ending, it needed to be a real crime novel rather than leaving it as an intriguing classic. And if that means the novel will with all its fascinations actually reach a wider audience then that must be to the good.

And Gwyneth Hughes (the adapter) does retain the integrity of the novel, as there is no attempt to continue the piece in Dickens' style - this isn't the 'completed mystery' but the original with an explanation in the last few pages of how the story was resolved in order to create the BBC adaptation. The actual choice of solution, as all the others before and those still to come, will of course be a matter of speculation and debate. While it is a creative spin on some of the evidence, personally I don't buy it, as it means too many alterations of the original in order for it truly to work. But as a spin off text, the likelihood is that readers will have already seen 'the solution'. So as a way to encounter the original 'Drood' then this edition is very up-to-the-moment and treats both the reader and Dickens' work with respect.

It is difficult to recommend a single Dickens text above any other, but The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens do provide an easily accessible contrast to Drood, being much more social in tone, yet with, in 'The Chimes', a very recognisable setting. And of course biographies of Dickens abound in this anniversary year, but Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin is a work which explores some of the complexities of Dickens own relationships with women, and might give a clue as to how some of the themes of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' connect to Dickens' own life.

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