BOOKS

Back to the scene of a 111-year-old crime

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD by Charles Dickens; concluded by Leon Garfield

MARK ABLEY February 2 1981
BOOKS

Back to the scene of a 111-year-old crime

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD by Charles Dickens; concluded by Leon Garfield

MARK ABLEY February 2 1981

Back to the scene of a 111-year-old crime

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD by Charles Dickens; concluded by Leon Garfield

(Collins, $15.95)

There are at least three mysteries about Edwin Drood. The first is why the great Charles Dickens, adored by Queen Victoria and half of England, should have chosen to write a

murder mystery as he felt the approach of death. The second, as the title suggests, is the unexplained fate of the bland young Drood. The third, most tantalizing of all, arises from the author’s death in June, 1870, halfway through the book at chapter 22: how was the book supposed to end?

Leaving aside the monumental difference in quality between Dickens and Dallas, it’s as if the world had never found out who shot J.R. For Edwin Drood had been appearing in monthly instalments, and families read Dickens aloud to each other for the same reasons that families now watch TV serials. Since 1870 Dickens’ friends and followers (novelists, scholars, playwrights, even the odd film-maker) have taken up the nearly impossible challenge. The difficulty is not to say who did it, but to recapture enough of the spirit of Dickens to show why it was done.

Just as there’s more to Hamlet than a messy saga of revenge, there’s more to Edwin Drood than an amputated thriller. The central consciousness in its sombre, cluttered pages is John Jasper, music teacher and choirmaster: a

sweet-voiced and eminent gentleman, as far as the world is concerned. But Jasper is also an opium addict with a passion for his nephew’s fiancée. That nephew is Edwin Drood, who disappears at the end of chapter 14; many readers have assumed Jasper to be his killer. The cluster of other characters includes a lawyer and a clergyman who, remarkably for Dickens, both radiate goodness. Although he is as savage as ever about the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, the intensity of Edwin Drood

comes not from its social comment or its gothic trappings but from the inner fury of Dickens, a man who (like Jasper) was forced to hide his private desperation, and his passion for a very young woman, behind a mask of public respectability. This novel begins in an opium dream and, for all the portraits of goodness, nightmare washes every word.

It has never been satisfactory to read the Edwin Drood that Dickens left hanging; it has never yet been satisfactory to read a continuation. The style is unique, but Dickens was a master of vision, not just gleaming language, and anyone wanting to complete the story needs to re-imagine the world. He had the frightening innocence of a child: society was always new in his eyes, new and marvelous and wrong. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that the latest and best attempt to finish Edwin Drood should be the work of a writer hitherto known for children’s books. Leon Garfield writes with tact and zest, and although his 19 chapters are occasionally predictable, they’re never boring and they rarely jar. This is more of an achievement than it sounds. Part of the fun is that we can not only pit wits against two different authors, we can watch Garfield pitting his own wit against Dickens. His version makes Edwin Drood very much a story for our troubled times, and why not? By 1870 the esteemed Mr. Dickens, apostle of decent sentiment, was indecently close to what we’d call schizophrenia. At a few inspired moments Garfield even adds another mystery to the mysteries surrounding Edwin Drood: how can he have got it so right?

MARK ABLEY