In 1865 a steam train derails whilst it is crossing a bridge at Staplehurst in Kent. Ten people are killed and forty more injured, some very severely. Amongst the shaken but unhurt passengers is the novelist Charles Dickens, who lends aid and succor to the dying and injured. Dickens is lauded as a public hero for his efforts, but the accident has a tremendous psychological impact on him which only seems to worsen as the years pass.
Wilkie Collins, a fellow novelist and sometimes-collaborator of Dickens, observes Dickens' decline following the accident, and is particularly bemused by Dickens' account of a spectral figure called 'Drood' who appeared in the aftermath of the crash. Dickens apparently becomes obsessed with finding Drood, embarking on lengthy explorations of London's criminal and literal underground in search of the figure, aided by Collins. A private investigator named Fields joins the chase, informing Collins that Drood is a serial killer and mass-murderer, and Collins soon finds himself embroiled in a complex and clandestine struggle. These events are made all the more confusing due to Collins' own reliance on opium (a painkiller for his gout) and the fictional events of the two novels that Collins and Dickens are inspired to write by these events (The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, respectively) become entwined with the 'real' events that are transpiring.
Drood is a complex novel, huge in length, exacting in detail and relayed to the reader through a narrator so unreliable - Collins - that is very hard to know what is 'real' (as in 100% back up by historical fact), what is reliable (or true in the sense of the novel's narrative) and what is pure fantasy (either an outright lie or a drug-induced fantasy). As with Suzanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Simmons has attempted to write a book that is almost Victorian in its own construction (not to mention its formidable and possibly unnecessary length), but unlike Clarke's book, Drood is less obviously a fantasy, existing somewhere between historical novel and a literary and metaphorical work. Simmons also raises a lot of issues and ideas here, from the struggles all novelists and writers face in writing their books (thankfully without descending to self-indulgence) to the social issues the day. He even finds time to further explore the aftermath of the events of The Terror, his previous novel about the Franklin Expedition, which took place a few years before the start of this novel.
The result could have a confusing mess, but Simmons' skills as a writer and the orchestrator of an immense and complex narrative shine through here. The writing is strong, the story is page-turning and the characters are convincing, although also increasingly repellent as the book goes on. Wilkie Collins, our narrator, becomes particularly unlikable as the book nears its conclusion and his less savoury aspects (such as his scandalous home life) are emphasised whilst some of his more positive ones (his work on behalf of 'fallen women') almost go unmentioned. In particular, whilst the book's fantastical elements and more far-fetched moments can be explained as part of Collins' drug addiction, one plot point towards the end of the book is pretty hard to swallow and rather unconvincing.
Overall, Drood (****) is a rich, well-written and satisfying novel, very clever in construction, which will reward re-reading. However, the ending is something of a let-down and the motives ascribed to (very well-known) historical characters are sometimes dubious. The book is available now in the UK and USA. Guillermo Del Toro has bought the movie rights to the book and is planning a film adaptation for the time after he has completed work on The Hobbit.