It is arguably the greatest mystery story ever written, if “greatest mystery” means “most mysterious because still unsolved.” It is most certainly the greatest mystery story ever half written. For Charles Dickens died halfway through writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If someone had written the historical events as a fictional story about an author writing a story, it would sound too contrived to be enjoyable.
Consider the situation. Charles Dickens is the most popular English author of his time. For thirty-five years he has made a practice of publishing his novels in monthly installments – at times, weekly installments. His fans all read his books together, a bit at a time, month by month as the numbers appear. In between issues, all of England (and America, for that matter) talk about it and speculate on what favorite characters will do next or how the poor orphan hero will get out of the current scrape. Everywhere the Great Man goes, his adoring public besieges him with questions: “Is Little Nell Alive?” “Who will Esther marry?” And the love affair is mutual; the author finds energy and inspiration in his readers’ ongoing reactions to his unfolding tales. Given this scenario, it was almost bound to happen. At some point, every Dickens novel was half finished. Approximately nineteen months out of every twenty during his career, Charles Dickens’s death would have left the world wondering what was supposed to happen next in their latest favorite.
But in 1869, the Father of Pickwick and Micawber decided to write a mystery: the kind of book in which everything – every character, every plot point, every mundane object someone picks up or carelessly drops – points to the end. And then almost exactly halfway through it, he died, leaving the greatest mystery in the history of mystery. Not only are we unsure who killed Edwin Drood, we don’t even know that he has been killed. Does a plausible scenario exist in which Dickens anticipated his death (his doctors had been telling him he needed to slow down) and planned the ultimate cliffhanger?
What a book it would have been! As it stands, every paragraph is entertaining, every page provides what seems to be a clue that sets the reader thinking and trying to anticipate the revelations of the penultimate chapter, even knowing that the penultimate chapter, and hence the revelations, departed the Earth forever with the fertile mind of Charles Dickens. From the setting, the mystery, and the characters Dickens bequeathed to us, it’s clear that it would have been one of his best. But Edwin Drood will never be a favorite, because mysteries need endings so very badly. I've been raving about the book to my wife, but she said she thought she could never read a book knowing the ending would never come. I’m so sorry that she doesn’t know what she’s missing.
My favorite character is Mr. Grewgious, attorney at law and guardian of the marriageable Rosa Bud. Let’s just start with the name itself, the perfect Dickens name: absolutely and without a doubt a possible combination in the English language, and yet never heard before or since. Mr. Grewgious has too much neck at the top and too much ankle at the bottom. His face gives the odd impression of being an unfinished work of art (like the book he appears in!), and on his scalp sits a knot of yellow stuff that doesn’t look like hair and yet couldn’t be a wig because no sane person would ever willingly top his head with anything so unattractive. He is awkward in physique: he constantly apologizes for himself for being too “Angular” (with brilliant Dickensian capitalization). He is awkward as well in sociability: conversations come so unnaturally to him that he must make a list of points and mark them off one-by-one, starting with asking about his interlocutor’s well-being and ending with saying “Good-bye.” Almost anything is possible in a mystery novel: the seemingly most virtuous character can turn out to be a habitual killer. But surely Dickens predestined Mr. Grewgious to righteousness. For one thing, he works with Minor Canon Crisparkle to aid Rosa in her distress, and the name “Crisparkle” must in the Dickensian world indicate a man who bears the sparkling light of Christ. I may not be 100% sure who the murderer is, but I know Mr. Grewgious is among the heroes who will bring him (or, with a probability of roughly 1.06%, her) to justice.
This past Sunday, on Charles Dickens’s birthday during year 10 of my ten-year plan, I finished rereading all of Dickens’s novels. I saved Edwin Drood for last the first time, and I saved him for last the second time. I wanted to savor the full effect of the abrupt ending to the career of the greatest English novelist. Like standing at the edge of the Cliffs of Dover and looking out over the empty sea with the knowledge of all the blessed plot of England behind me, I wanted to step to the edge of Edwin Drood (which, if one includes the “Sapsea fragment” found posthumously among Dickens’s papers, ends midsentence) and take in the view with Scrooge and David Copperfield and Captain Cuttle and Magwitch and the Boffinses and the whole blessed cloud of unforgettable characters behind me. I could pine: Oh, what could have been! But this way it’s easier to rejoice: Oh, What Is!