Friday, May 15, 2009

No Great Mystery

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens, Read by Alan Chant for Librivox, Text provided by Stanza for iPhone, Chapman & Hall London, 1870/2008

Unfinished works of art are often sources of great mystery. Mozart's Requiem, Fitzgerald's The Love of the Last Tycoon, a whole raft of Hemingway novels foisted upon the public post-Papa, Herge's Tintin and Alph-Art, several projects of Orson Welles, the list goes on and on. The common question is, of course, how would this have been completed, which masks the more pertinent question -- have we been cheated out of what would have been a masterpiece?

There is no mystery to that question in the case of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens was working on the novel up to the day of his death and the book has the distinct feel of only being a goodly quarter of a novel, though based on his plans it appears to be closer to half. Chapters seem slighter than other Dickens' novels, his attempt to keep the novel a lean thriller.

Things move relatively quickly for a Dickens and the subject matter -- opium addiction, madness, murder, jealousy -- seem not exactly foreign to Dickens but a bit more hardcore than readers of Nicholas Nickelby might expect. Nevertheless the novel is clearly not one of Dickens great books and the portions that were published give no great expectation to the reader that a triumph was in the making.

Which is not to say that The Mystery of Edwin Drood is at all a bad novel, nor that it can be judged on merits other than its incompleteness. What we do have is interesting, intriguing and entertaining, just incomplete.

Dickens introduces two couples in the course of the book, Neville Landless and his sister Helena and Edwin Drood and his betrothed, the orphaned Rosa Bud. As alluded to in their name, the Landlesses are not well off, having come to the town of Cloisterham for their education. Neville has a fiery temper -- which is only asking for trouble in a mystery novel -- t
hough we are given to understand that Neville, despite this, is a decent sort. He becomes interested in Rosa, believing that Edwin's appraisal of his betrothed is seriously lacking. Confronting Edwin about this leads to an altercation. Shortly after the altercation, Edwin disappears, never to be seen again in the novel. This spat sets up Neville as the prime suspect in the eyes of the town even if no further evidence can be suppliled.

From this the rest of the novel flows.

As per most Dickens' novels, we are also introduced to a near baker's dozen of oddball characters, highly individuated through speech patterns and personality quirks. There is Rosa's guardian Mr. Grewgious, an "Angular man" not given much to emotion, more of a calculating machine, though with hidden romantic depths; John Jasper, Edwin's highly unstable opium smoking uncle, who is himself desperately in love with Rosa; the noble Reverend Crisparkle under whom Neville studies; Durdles, the cemetery keeper who prizes his work and takes great pride in his tombstone engravings and his drink; Deputy, a young town boy tasked with the curious job of trying to hit Durdles with stones if he sees him out of doors after dark; and more.

While Dickens was not a natural mystery writer, he did have some appreciation for the genre as well as some experience with the form in a small number of short stories featuring detectives and other mysterious elements. However, unless Dickens is delivering an enormous head-fake, the evidence throughout the book most obviously points toward Drood's uncle John Jasper as the murderer. It is always possible that such blatant clues are red herrings, though Dickens is known for somewhat magical predictability so it feels hard to credit such a belief.

Almost since the writer's death "solutions" have appeared. Thomas James published the first only three years after Dickens' death, claiming that the author had dictated the completion of the novel from beyond the grave. No less a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle was sadly duped in this arrangement. Leon Garfield published a "solution" as well to much acclaim. Having seen the damage Robert Parker performed on Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs, I can only say, no thanks. I'll leave it where it lies.

Though I did have an actual dead tree version of the novel about me, I primarily experienced this novel through two digital mediums. The Stanza app for iPhone is almost in all ways the superior to the Kindle iPhone app in its various setting adjustments. Text is clear and legible; a night reading black-background-white-text option keeps the brightness down; your place is saved in the chapter when you return to the text; and a fairly large and growing catalog of both free and pay books are available. I worried, after reading choppy text documents on my iPod, that the iPhone readers would make for an unpleasant chore, but such was not the case.

The other fashion in which I enjoyed Dickens' final novel was in the masterful audio version provided by Librivox. I've reviewed Librivox audio books before and have to say that it makes an amazing difference when you select a novel with a single narrator over the group effort offerings.
Alan Chant, apparently on staff at a British prep school, has an incredibly pleasant voice for reading and, as T.S. Eliot would have it, he do the different voices.'s search features aren't the simplest, but an advanced Google search shows that there are a few more titles under his belt including more Dickens for those interested. Chant's warm, even timbre almost made me give up actuallly even reading the book just to sit back and listen to a master at his work. Make that two masters.

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