Friday, August 10, 2012

The mystery in The Mystery of Edwin Drood - setting aside assumptions

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) might make a good test case for what misleading assumptions can do to a novel.  Charles Dickens’s final novel looks like a mystery, acts like a mystery, and is titled Mystery, but it is in fact probably not a mystery novel, except that it is.  Because the novel is unfinished – we have half of it – there is no way to decisively prove that it is or is not a mystery (which it is (not)).

I can decipher my own gibberish.  Edwin Drood is now a mystery novel, without a doubt.  It is the third entry in H. R. F. Keating’s Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books, for example, preceded (the list is chronological) by Poe and The Moonstone.  If people who read and write mysteries call it a mystery novel, it is.  Genres and canons form retrospectively.  And the novel has a murder, suspects, clues, a detective – or it probably has these things.  Later writers of mysteries learned from it, imitated it, and turned it into a mystery novel.

I have no idea when people started calling detective novels and crime fiction “mysteries,” when there was a genre known as “mysteries.”  In England in the 1920s it can seem like every third novel published has the word “mystery” in the title, but before then?  Sherlock Holmes always has “adventures.”  Perhaps a passerby will know the answer to this question.

But there was no mystery genre in 1870, even though Dickens was helping create it.  If I read the novel as a generic mystery I begin creating problems for myself.  The mystery has a straightforward solution (mad choirmaster and opium addict John Jasper murders his nephew Edwin but in such a way as to throw suspicion on another) but the conventions of the mystery novel, of our mystery novel, almost demand that the plain answer is not the actual answer, and that all of the fairly blatant clues are red herrings or tricks.

The result has been a series of continuations and ingenious theorizing which is all, admittedly, a lot of fun.  Angus Wilson wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I read, and he describes a favorite example, Felix Aylmer’s The Drood Case (1964), in which Jasper is defended  with “a complicated, closely argued, but to me inherently improbable solution based upon the old Islamic family feud code” (13).  I love this sort of thing – I wish this were the solution!

But then I remind myself that 1) Edwin Drood is almost certainly not a puzzle mystery, and that 2) it was written by Charles Dickens, a writer whose methods and purposes are well understood and who was not going to make too wild of a leap in novel #15, although he sure as heck does not stand still.  In particular, Edwin Drood  contains all sorts of fascinating expansions and revisions of the some of the major themes of Dickens’s previous novel, Our Mutual Friend.  It would be a shame to toss all of that aside for a puzzle mystery.

Not that I know I am right.  Perhaps more novels should remain unfinished.  No, I suppose I believe that the author is better at finishing his own story than I am, even when the author is a notch or ten less inventive than Charles Dickens.


  1. Everything I've seen or read agrees with your assessment, but the impossibility of being certain does leave those tantalizing thoughts. Donald Westlake, for one, in the introduction to Levine a book of his short stories, says he's convinced that Jasper didn't do it. (He also says he at one time was kicking around the idea of doing a whole book on Drood, which sadly never happened.

    Drood is such fun, regardless!

  2. That is a shame. A crime writer of his skill would have been a great match.

    I tried to pursue your comment a bit in my new post. or so I believe.

  3. Tom....John Jasper (no such character as Jasper Drood!) is the choirmaster, not the organist.

  4. Two errors that ugly so close together. Horrifying. Best not to think about it.

    I will correct them! Many thanks.