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The Mystery of Edwin Drood

A wise old Greek once said that we gaze upon what we find most repulsive because we have an inner need to learn – a statement of particular truth if we assume the human soul to be deathless. Our souls may indeed glean some reflection of light and hope from behind the cloudy sunsets that all Romantics adore; but what really propels us forth in a life that ultimately promises infirmity and decrepitude is the chance for redemption, for the restoration of all the days and nights lost to work, to illness, to bickering or internecine. In their stead we wish ourselves the chance to fill our past with the glory of living – the greatest work of art we could ever achieve. Even when the best and most breathtaking of young life has passed us by and we begin the turn through a second existence of increasing responsibility, pensiveness, and loss, we are reminded of why we were once young: never having been young means never having been immortal. Youth serves its placeholder when it extends its gaze past its greedy hands and gains a premonition of what is to come. That is why when the young perish they remain young forever both in our memory and in their own, but they will not have lived or loved as completely as those who survive to grayness. So although dying young for a starlet may lead to greater posthumous worship it is not to be desired on any soul however deserving it may be of adulation. Which brings us to one of the most famous unfinished novels of all time.

The plot involves a certain simplicity enriched only by the sensations and motives of true art. Our title character is a young man betrothed as a child by his dying father to another orphan-in-waiting, Rosa. Drood is well-spoken and temperamental like many who have had to justify their suffering, and in that way he resembles his uncle and guardian, John Jasper. Jasper is only a few years older than Drood and the cathedral choirmaster in Cloisterham, the smallish town in which our events accumulate. His position remains one of respect and clout, and his truck with all the local authorities grants him the sheen of blamelessness. Yet even a cursory glance at this "dark man" injects distrust in his vanity as if he were an alembic of maledictions:

Mr. Jasper is a dark man of some six-and-twenty, with thick, lustrous, well-arranged black hair and whisker. He looks older than he is, as dark men often do. His voice is deep and good, his face and figure are good, his manner is a little sombre. His room is a little sombre, and may have had some influence in forming his manner. It is mostly in shadow. Even when the sun shines brilliantly, it seldom touches the grand piano in the recess, or the folio music-books on the stand, or the bookshelves on the wall, or the unfinished picture of a blooming schoolgirl hanging over the chimneypiece; her flowing brown hair tied with a blue riband, and her beauty remarkable for a quite childish, almost babyish, touch of saucy discontent, comically conscious of itself (There is not the least artistic merit in this picture, which is a mere daub; but it is clear that the painter has made it humorously – one might almost say, revengefully – like the original).

We all know the type of girl depicted in such vulgarity, but our conclusions should caption the beholder not the beheld. If a cheeky, frisky young thing is your idea of a beautiful painting – or at least something worth looking at day in and day out – then the satisfaction of some primal needs will be your recurring priority. Jasper does little to conceal his fondness for Rosa, and given her attractiveness, the general dearth of eligible women in the vicinity, as well as the mild discrepancy in age (Rosa is but eighteen as the novel opens), such lust is hardly extraordinary. Jasper, Rosa, and Drood comprise the three points of an unlikely love triangle swept aside by the other characters: Sapsea, the pompous future mayor; Crisparkle, the minor canon; the Landless twins, Helena and Neville, born in Sri Lanka but of mystical origin much like certain characters in this novel; Grewgious, "the Angular man" and Rosa's benefactor who claims if forced to write a play or be decapitated, he would surely lose his head; Bazzard, his shadowy valet and closet playwright; Miss Twinkleton, the headmistress of Rosa's boarding school; and Durdles, stonemason and local drunk who also hears and knows more than most everyone else in Cloisterham. Even with this extensive cast and conversation, we never lose the thread of an argument, such as the one that Neville and Edwin have shortly before the latter's disappearance on Christmas Eve – and I will end our summary right about there.

Critics have spared no effort in decoding the novel, apparently only half-written, and arrived at the conclusion that the psyche of the criminal trumps the detective story that encases it; were it so, however, one would have serious doubts as to the validity of the whole enterprise. There is surely one overwhelming suspect and motive for the crime, but the motive vanishes once a shocking announcement (to the characters but not to the reader) dissolves a bond that many had held for eternal. The most glaring mistake of critics, and one rather endemic to academe, is to prod a hot poker among the ashes of notes that Dickens left for the continuation of the novel as well as letters dispatched to relatives and friends and try to reassemble his original intentions. There is a reason why Durdles, who is consistently inebriated yet just as consistently alert, hears a scream in or near the cemetery he patrols almost a year before Drood vanishes, and why certain characters tend to slip offstage when others appear. In fact, it is Durdles who seems to know or suspect much more than he could effectively impart:

Durdles is asleep at once, and in his sleep he dreams a dream. It is not much of a dream, considering the vast extent of the domains of dreamland, and their wonderful productions; it is only remarkable for being unusually restless, and unusually real. He dreams of lying there, asleep, and yet counting his companion's footsteps as he walks to and fro. He dreams that the footsteps die away into distance of time and of space, and that something touches him, and that something falls from his hand. Then something clinks and gropes about, and he dreams that he is alone for so long a time, that the lanes of light take new directions as the moon advances in its course. From succeeding unconsciousness he passes into a dream of slow uneasiness from cold; and painfully awakes to a perception of the lanes of light – really changed, much as he had dreamed – and Jasper walking among them, beating his hands and feet.

You might do well to consider this dream, and you might do better to omit for a moment the two characters it mentions. It is this passage that illuminates all of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in such a manner as to leave the careful reader only one decision as to the identity of the person behind our protagonist's disappearance. There is also that odd sailor, or maybe two, that drifts into Cloisterham for no apparent reason other than to visit old Crisparkle. And sailors, as we know, often detect danger from very far off.  

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