In 1865, a train carrying Charles Dickens, his young inamorata, and her mother suffered a serious accident near Staplehurst involving a broken viaduct. Many passengers were killed and many more injured. As he tries to help the survivors, Dickens becomes aware of a gaunt, black-clad man also ministering to the survivors.
From this first meeting, Dickens is obsessed with the mysterious Drood who seems to possess supernatural powers. Wilkie Collins, the narrator of this book who notes with regret that people always call him Wilkie and never Collins, begins to worry that the balance of his friend's mind has been affected. The two are not just friends, but also collaborators and rivals. No matter what kudos Wilkie receives, he can never seem to surpass Dickens, who calls himself the Inimitable. Dickens receives all the credit for their joint work and remains unperturbed by Wilkie's The Moonstone outselling Dickens's own books.
Admittedly, horror stories and tales of the supernatural are not my cup of tea, but I found the Drood storyline boring and unconvincing. Perhaps it is Drood's over-the-top facial disfigurement—so grotesque that Drood has to wear a veil over his face to walk among people—that caused my suspension of disbelief to collapse. The truly terrifying monsters are those who smile at you from a perfectly pleasant face, like the high school principal in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Another alternative might have been never to reveal the carved-up face that lies behind Drood's veil, as in the Hawthorne story. But to lay it all out immediately in monstrous detail and then add the revolting descriptions of Drood's underground realm, well, it was too much for me to swallow, even knowing Wilkie Collins's reputation for sensationalism.
Although the Drood storyline is meant to be central to the book, it is actually not necessary. A fine and far more interesting book could have simply focused on the relationship between the two writers: by far the best part of the book, in my opinion. I also very much liked the period details and atmosphere, and admired the author's research. However, too often I felt that incidents and descriptions peripheral to the story were jammed in because the author wanted to include everything he'd learned.
Quite simply, the book is too long. At nearly 800 pages, it is not only uncomfortable to hold but wearies the reader (this one, anyway) with much repetition. There are many descriptions of the normal dinners of the time, each easily five times as much food as we expect, even with today's inflated portions. There are many descriptions, too, of Wilkie's opium habit, his cravings, the quantities he ingests, the resulting tortured dreams. These are but two examples.
I came away feeling that the author was being self-indulgent. Yes, cutting is hard, but necessary. It's also true that books of the era in which this book is set were often quite long but they were published in installments (serialised in magazines) or in multiple volumes. This huge lump of text is hard to digest. Simmons does a masterful job of varying the pace, maintaining the momentum, and keeping the story interesting, but it would have been a much better book at half its length.
I looked forward to this book, having read two Wilkie Collins masterpieces in recent years, as well as The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher about the detective who is in this book called Inspector Field. The writing is too good for me to be disappointed, but I was certainly ready for the book to be over long before the end. I'm not put off by long books—I even reread War and Peace earlier this year—but felt this one could have been tighter.