Victorian authors Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were not only contemporaries but also friends and collaborators on many projects.
Perhaps encouraged by Collins' work on "The Moonstone," considered the first detective or "sensation novel," Dickens wrote six installments of the 12-part serial "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" before his death in 1870.
Although he left neither outline nor notes, several authors have tried to complete the story. But what was Dickens' true intent? That remains a mystery.
The unfinished work becomes a backdrop for Dan Simmons' giant of a novel at 771 pages.
The authors are the characters in a psychological thriller that begins with Dickens' true-life escape from a deadly train accident in 1865. Climbing from his dangling carriage, Dickens descends into the valley in an attempt to rescue survivors.
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown & Co. ($26.99)
In the nightmarish landscape, he describes an encounter with a tall, thin man in a heavy dark cape, with a "shockingly pale, skull-like visage" and lidless eyes -- Drood, there perhaps to rescue, perhaps to murder the survivors.
With Collins as narrator, Dickens convinces his reluctant companion to join his search for the truth about Drood:
"There is a story in Mr. Drood that must be unearthed." The trail winds through catacombs, tombs and opium dens beneath the city of London, known as the dark "Undertown."
Does the mysterious phantom truly exist? Is he alive or dead? Is Dickens in league with the mystical Drood or might Dickens himself be the villain, as Collins speculates?
Adding to the confusion is Collins' addiction to laudanum, an opium-based pain-killer. As his addiction grows, so does the psychological puzzle.
Collins is a complex character whose jealousy, rivalry and paranoia are offset by moments of uncompromising clarity ("Dickens was the literary genius, and I was not") and snarky humor ("It seemed he was an orphan, Charles Dickens' favorite sort of human being, if one is to believe 'Oliver Twist' or 'David Copperfield' or 'Bleak House' or any of a dozen other of his tales"). His lucidity is compromised by visions of a green lady with tusk-like teeth and "the other Wilkie," an industrious doppelganger who writes as Collins sleeps.
And Dickens, "the Inimitable," is vital, irrepressible, bigger than life, creator of memorable Christmas stories and rags-to riches tales, but prone to a darker side and the practice of "mesmerism."
Is Drood the hapless victim of Dickens' final, unfinished serial, or is he the menacing phantom of Collins' investigations?
Simmons weaves a dark tapestry of the lives, works and foibles of both authors. History is diabolically meshed with fiction as the secrets that haunt both men splinter their friendship and lead them to the brink of murder.
Diane Juravich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1511.