I have a goal to read every novel written by Charles Dickens and when I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood last week, I came within three books of that goal: Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. I must say, however, that I did not anticipate how frustratingly tantalizing it would be to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I knew it was an unfinished novel, but somehow it didn’t register in my brain that it would not be satisfying to be left hanging in the middle of a book, especially a mystery.
Charles Dickens began The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870 in serial form, but died unexpectedly before the book was complete. What is frustrating is that he got far enough to generate sympathy and interest in the characters and far enough to set up his mystery, but not far enough to tip his hand as to the final outcome.
The story is set in Cloisterham, a cathedral town, where John Jasper is the choir master, though also an opium addict with some inner demons and in love with his nephew’s fiance, Rosa Bud. His nephew is Edwin Drood, who believes, along with everyone else, that Jasper is completely devoted to him.
Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies. Both their fathers were widowed and good friends and hoped their respective child would find happiness with the other. But because Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies, they don’t view each other in a romantic light. They quarrel and tease and only stay engaged because they are so used to the idea that it doesn’t occur to them that they need not marry.
But into this state of affairs comes the Landless twins, Neville and Helena. Neville is instantly smitten with Rosa and resents Edwin because he does not properly appreciate Rosa. They quarrel and their quarrel is exacerbated by Jasper, who drugs their drinks and gets them so heated up that Neville tries to attack Edwin. Jasper then tells people how he fears for Edwin’s life, so violent is Neville’s temper. Meanwhile, Jasper is engaged in some odd nocturnal activities, roaming the cathedral at night with the vagrant stonemason Durdles, stealing keys to the cathedral from Durdles, learning how Durdles can find dead bodies in the cathedral, learning about the quick lime that supposedly can eat even the bones of a body. It’s extremely suspicious.
He then has both Neville and Edwin over for dinner so the two of them can make up their quarrel, but that night Edwin disappears. Jasper accuses Neville of killing him and most of the town believes him, because of Neville’s temper and because he’s an outsider from Ceylon. Only Rosa suspects Jasper – who she does not like or trust – and seemingly her guardian Mr. Grewgious, though he doesn’t say so. Also, a mysterious stranger named Dick Datchery comes to Cloisterham and seems keenly interested in Jasper.
Who is Dick Datchery? Is he someone we’ve already met or an entirely new character? Is Edwin Drood really dead? Could he be Dick Datchery? Is John Jasper really the killer or did someone else do it? I suppose it depends on how tricky you think Dickens was trying to be, though I think it’s a mistake to analyze the mystery in the same way you would an Agatha Christie novel, where the killer could literally be anybody. Dickens, I wouldn’t think, would be that devious.
It is commonly accepted that John Jasper is indeed the killer – it would seem like a waste, all those unforgettably atmospheric clues indicating Jasper – and that Drood is dead. Where there is more controversy is Dick Datchery. The 1935 Universal movie -with Claude Rains as John Jasper – has Neville Landless be Datchery, but that only made sense because in the movie Rosa was also in love with Neville and there is no evidence in the book that she is. She seems more interested in another character who comes into the story late, Mr. Tartar, a former sailor. There is also no opportunity for Neville in the book, since he is in London and Datchery has taken up residence in Cloisterham.
Tartar is also often suggested as Datchery, but because he is introduced so late in the story, he seems to have no reason to be interested in Jasper and he only meets Rosa after Datchery arrives in Cloisterham. One person has suggested Helena – she used to disguise herself as a boy when she and Neville would try to run away from their step-father when they were children – but it seems harder to believe her disguised as an old man.
The other popular surmise is that Datchery is really Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious’ clerk. He’s absent during the latter half of the book and so in a position to play Datchery in Cloisterham. Also, if Mr. Grewgious suspects Jasper, it would make sense for him to send somebody to investigate. Objections to Bazzard are that his own droopy personality is too much at odds with Datchery’s more robust manner and that we know and care for Bazzard too little to make it interesting to the reader if he were Datchery.
The original consensus after the death of Dickens was that Drood was not dead at all. Somehow, Jasper failed to kill him and Datchery is really Edwin Drood. This finds some support in drafts by Dickens were he refers to Edwin in hiding. Datchery, then, could really be Edwin. G.K. Chesterton points out that if Edwin was dead and Jasper killed him, there seems to be little mystery, but only a matter of time before the characters find it Jasper out. Conversely, if Edwin is not dead, then there is still some mystery regarding Edwin. However, Charles Dickens’ son said that his father had told him that Jasper was really the killer and other people said that the story Dickens’ described to them unequivocally had Edwin dead.
Personally, I find it most appealing to imagine that Edwin is really alive and masquerading as Dick Datchery. My reason is partly wish-fulfillment. I was just starting to like Edwin when he disappeared. He and Rosa have a very touching scene when they discuss the novel fact that they do not need to marry. It’s touching because it signals that they are both maturing, actually viewing the other person and not just themselves. When he disappears, it’s like his character arc gets cut off half-way. Also, I am attracted to the idea because I don’t find the idea of anyone else creditable, except Bazzard, but since I don’t know Bazzard very well, the idea that he is really Dick Datchery doesn’t strike me as very interesting or satisfying.
Likewise, it seems most satisfying if John Jasper was – or attempted to be – the killer of Edwin Drood. Otherwise, all the apparent set-up would be nothing but a red-herring. His climbing the cathedral tower on a moonlit night portended no murder? That seems lame. I don’t like plot twists merely for the sake of plot twists unless they are set up properly so that it makes sense and doesn’t nullify everything that came before.
I already want to read the book again and see if I can garner more clues. I can see how people get obsessed with the mystery. My only concern is that I will over-analyze a book that probably cannot bear such close scrutiny. One critic pointed out that whatever Dickens may have intended, he often changed his mind while writing and there is infinite variety in how the novel could be resolved. When Rupert Holmes wrote the musical “Drood” he gave the musical multiple endings, with multiple killers of Edwin, which the audience could then choose.
And despite being unfinished, I did enjoy The Mystery of Edwin Drood apart from the tantalizing puzzle. I was interested in the story and Dickens’ still has his delightful array of eccentric characters. Mr. Grewgious talks mechanically like a clock and speaks of his “Angularity,” but underneath he is a sentimental, kindly and shrewd lawyer. Billickin (she never specifies whether “miss” or “mrs” but prefers to sign her name simply as Billickin) always speaks the truth with magnificent candor and develops a rivalry with Rosa’s school mistress, Miss Twinkleton. Durdles is a stonemason who hires a young boy to throw stones at him if he is out after a certain point at night (and it seems likely that this boy might know something about Jasper). Mr. Tartar is a breezy sailor who offers to share his window flowers with Neville, who feels low while living in London. Mr. Tartar also seems likely to make off with the affections of Rosa.
I just wish I knew what happens to all these characters!