Murray, KY – In April, 1870, Charles Dickens began writing his final novel, a murder mystery titled The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Two months later, he died of a stroke, leaving the novel unfinished. Commentator Michael Cohen talks about why this uncommon mystery has captured the imaginations of readers for 140 years.
The book with the most legitimate claim to being called the first English murder mystery novel is Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It also has a good claim to being called the greatest mystery, because we don't know how it turned out, and we never will. Dickens wrote only half of it, and died just before completing the sixth monthly installment. Yet the book, incomplete as it is, still is read with interest today.
Briefly, the plot is as follows. John Jasper, the choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral, is an opium addict. He seems to love his young nephew, Edwin Drood, but in fact plots to kill him because Jasper loves Drood's fianc e Rosa. Jasper's plan is to lay the blame at the door of an orphan pupil of one of the Cathedral's priests, a young man who has shown that he has a hot temper and also an interest in Drood's fianc e. On Christmas Eve, after dining with his uncle and the young man just mentioned, Drood disappears. There is no arrest but much suspicion in Cloisterham. A stranger, obviously a detective, begins to poke around the town. He finds some important clues, and there the action ends. The mystery rests not only in the incompleteness of the text, but in its indeterminateness. Did Jasper indeed do away with Drood, as the reader suspects and as Dickens's publisher said was the author's intention; or did the author decide to go in another direction with, perhaps, Drood's surprise reappearance later? And is the detective, as many readers have suspected, in disguise and a character earlier introduced in the book perhaps a principal such as the suspected young man or even Drood himself?
When we speak of mysteries as a genre of popular fiction, we are talking about books in which the mystery is solved. With Drood we have a true mystery, and many readers have enjoyed the challenge of attempting to fathom the mind of the dead author. Of course, the book also has the usual variety of Dickensian types and eccentrics. There is also what I would call an uncommon point of view about the nature of crime. Dickens does not believe, as, for example, Dostoyevsky does, that the criminal mind is interesting because it is so like our own in fact is our own, if circumstances are right. He thinks it is a "horrible wonder apart" from our own. What could an innocent person "know of the criminal intellect," Dickens writes, "which its own professed students perpetually misread, because they persist in trying to reconcile it with the average intellect of average men, instead of identifying it as a horrible wonder apart"
Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. His book Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction was published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and is available on Amazon.com.