Matthew Pearl's Blog - Posts Tagged "mystery"

It kicks off the subject of my third novel. But I avoided Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood for a long time. So many Dickens novels, so little time, and few people volunteer it as the Dickens “you have to read.” Since Dickens died in the middle of writing it, it falls into the category of the unfinished work that leaves you hanging: Lesley Castle by Austen, The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald, The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, to name a few.

Reading an unfinished book means taking on a project. If you're anything like me, it leads you to a stack of other reading that loads you down with increasingly esoteric substitutions for an actual conclusion. The Mystery of Edwin Drood was reportedly the most written-about book in the English language at one point. Who has time for another obsession?

Without giving anything away to those still in the avoidance stage, readers of The Mystery of Edwin Drood divide into two camps: the survivalists who think Edwin Drood lives beyond his uncle John Jasper's attempt on his life, and the traditionalists who believe Edwin dies. In support of the theories, readers point to clues in the original illustrations, the book's chapter headings, Dickens's working notes for the novel and his discarded ideas for the title.

Dickens knew well what questions he was setting us up to ask. Cloisterham, the novel's fictional town, was (writes Dickens's narrator) “pretty equally divided in opinion whether John Jasper's beloved nephew had been rolled by his passionate rival treacherously, or in an open struggle; or had, for his own purposes, spirited himself away.” Surely, the big reveal could not simply have been to pick one of these two choices we already know about, or could it? Ask me at your peril. I'm so indecisive I have trouble choosing from a restaurant menu even as a vegetarian when there are often only one or two choices.

One reason The Mystery of Edwin Drood is important and unique today is related to the way it was first published in the summer of 1870. At the start of each month, readers would line up to purchase the latest installment of Dickens's novel. Families and friends would discuss and debate what might happen next—would even write letters to Dickens with ideas or complaints. The story unfolded around them in real time as part of their lives (more on serial writing). I call my novel The Last Dickens not only because it's about his final book, but also because there will never be another Charles Dickens.

I like to think of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as the last nineteenth century novel. Not literally. But in it we have the strange combination of a Dickens novel with all its multiple strands of story lines waiting for resolution, and the very postmodern lack of the desired resolution.

My characters in The Last Dickens are driven to commit both brave and evil deeds by trying to find out how The Mystery of Edwin Drood was meant to end. But I don't try to dictate on the subject. In fact, alongside our paperback release of the novel from Random House, Modern Library is releasing a new edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood which I edited. I'd previously convinced them to let me edit similar companion editions for my other novels: a companion edition for The Dante Club, a companion edition for The Poe Shadow and a companion edition for The Last Dickens.

A special feature of our new edition is the inclusion of a previously out-of-print transcript of a mock trial about The Mystery of Edwin Drood's true ending, presided over by G. K. Chesterston and including George Bernard Shaw as head juror! It's a hoot, besides being enlightening.

People ask me how The Mystery of Edwin Drood was really supposed to end, as if I'd hold back if I had found the secret (I get the same question about Poe's death). Here is my answer: I happen to think Dickens himself was still deciding how the story would come out when he died—a luxury of the serially published author—but if I'm wrong, it's possible we'll one day find evidence of his plan for its ending. That might be a shame.

Besides the mock trial, other writers have tried their hand at writing a new ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood as well as other unfinished books.

What do you think: should we try to recreate missing endings to books, or let them stand on their own?

The Last Dickens  A Novel by Matthew Pearl The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Modern Library Classics) by Charles Dickens
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Published on October 29, 2009 08:48 • 422 views • Tags: charles, dickens, drood, edwin, mystery