Friday, August 10, 2012

Picking through Edwin Drood

The main reason I know that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is not a mystery novel is that it is a Charles Dickens novel, and Dickens novels are where Charles Dickens went to solve problems and rework ideas from earlier Dickens novels.  Some of the revisions are at the level of devices.  A new character, the mysterious Datchery, plops into Edwin Drood in what should be the middle of the book.  For a stranger, he has an unusual interest in the murder of Edwin Drood and the doings of the other characters.  He is likely not what he seems.  If he is another character in disguise, who is he?

The previous Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, features a character who is thought murdered.  He is, unknown to anyone, alive, and, as any of us would, takes the opportunity to wander around in disguise, doing all sorts of odd and dubious things.  Dickens does not really mean for the identity of the character to be a secret so he reveals it fairly early in the book – it is a long book, so “early” might mean after 200 pages, but still.

In the half of Edwin Drood that we have, the presumed murder is a drowning and no body is ever discovered which leaves the possibility that the supposedly murdered man has returned in disguise to solve his own murder, which would make a great mystery novel and probably has.  One great novel, six mediocre novels, and fifty bad ones, is my guess.  It is just that the use of the device for nothing more than suspense is so unlike Dickens.

I think the impetus of the novel is another continuation from Our Mutual Friend.  The love triangle in that novel includes a harmless schoolteacher who is driven into an insane, murderous rage by his jealousy.  Bradley Headstone at first seems like a purely comic character, but he warps as the novel moves along.  He becomes evil.  The love triangle does some strange things to the other fellow, too.  The woman is unfortunately the usual Dickensian nullity.  Himadri was writing about this topic earlier this year.

Jasper Drood begins close to where Headstone ends.  He is planning his crime – see  the amazing chapter 12, “A Night with Durdles.”  The murder occurs about a third of the way through the phantom finished novel.  The missing half of the novel would have been split between the investigation of the crime and the self-torments of the killer, his attempts to escape justice, his guilt and agony, his lunges at some sort of redemption.  I have just made Edwin Drood into a different kind of mystery novel, a noirish crime novel from the point of view of the desperate killer.  Except written in a Dickensian style, and interspersed with comic scenes and a romance in which an orphan marries a sailor.  Boy, the book would have been a mess.  Well, that’s Dickens’s specialty.

I was thinking about writing about how the feral, stone-throwing child Deputy is like a refugee from a László Krasznahorkai novel.  Would that have been a better post?  I’ll just give that one away.  The novel has an opening that rivals that of Bleak House except somehow on a smaller scale.  That also might have been better.  The novel is full of amazing things.  I would create another binary category – there are people who like their books complete and people who do not care – but I guess the distinction does not come up much.

1 comment:

  1. Something that never occured to me until just now is how natural (and perfect) the construction is of Dickens' scenes. He enters at just the right moment, follows the action through a dramatically-meaningful arc and never drags his feet getting the hell out and hurrying us along to the next scene. And Dickens could write great scenes, especially opening scenes. The first dozen pages of Our Mutual Friend are just breathtaking and alive.