Everyone who reads Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, inevitably finds themselves wondering how the story would have concluded had the author lived to complete it. Did John Jasper, the sinister choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, strangle Edwin, his rival for the hand of the delightful Rosa Bud, dump the body in the Sapsea Family Tomb and dose it with quicklime to hide his crime? Did the ruby-and diamond engagement ring in Edwin’s breast pocket survive the power of the corrosive and lead to the decomposed body’s identification and Jasper’s capture?
Dickens steers the reader towards believing that the answer to both questions is ‘yes’. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, however, someone who should know what he’s talking about, claimed that the mystery writer’s task is to conceal the key idea and emphasize everything which makes for a different explanation. Was Dickens, then, ladening his text with red herrings to put the reader off the scent, so to speak? Did he have in mind an ending that would turn everything on its head?
Of course, we’ll never know. Dickens died and the novel was never finished. That, though, has not stopped the speculation. Quite the opposite, in fact. The number of attempts in the one hundred and fifty years since his death to discover the ‘true’ ending is mind-boggling. A 600-page bibliography published in 1998 lists almost two thousand articles and books seeking to unearth clues in the text, decipher how the plot might evolve, and, of course, discover Edwin’s fate.
And it was not just Dickensian scholars who were consumed with finding the Drood Holy Grail. A PBS Masterpiece production, airing in 2012 and featuring Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as John Jasper, presented its own ending to the novel, while the Robert Holmes Broadway musical, Drood, which began its second run in 2012, invited the audience to choose the ending. Most surprising of all, though, was the mock trial of John Jasper for the murder of Edwin Drood held in King’s Hall, Covent Garden, in 1914. The jury, under the foremanship of George Bernard Shaw, returned a spineless verdict of manslaughter, at which point the judge (G. K. Chesterton of Father Brown fame) promptly fined everyone, except himself, for contempt of court!
The half-finished story enticed, begged almost, anyone who read it to come up with their own ending, and I was no exception. I donned my deerstalker, lit my meerschaum pipe and settled down to see what I could discover in the completed half of the novel. Nothing probably. After all, this vein of Drood gold had surely been panned to extinction by this point. But hold on! What was that on page 151? My blood racing, I reread the passage.
In a touching scene, Edwin and Rosa decide to separate, and the engagement ring, intended for Rosa’s finger, remains in Edwin’s breast pocket. And that is the problem. The young man would never leave such a priceless treasure in his coat pocket. He’d lock it away in his lodgings for safekeeping. How then, could the gold and precious stones – that weren’t in Edwin’s pocket – be found on his body and cause the murderer’s downfall? Suddenly, the vast majority of proposed continuations collapsed to dust! I’d struck gold!
Once the euphoria of spotting this flaw in the plot had worn off, I had to decide what to do next. Publish it. That’s what I would do. To my delight, my finding was published. To my despair, it appeared as a two-page comment deep inside a periodical where I knew it would be lost and forgotten as soon as the type was set. It deserved more. But what?
The shift in location of the ring from pocket to lodgings opened up a raft of new possibilities for the ending to Dickens’s novel. I determined to find the most plausible. The one I finally fastened on is fully consistent with the first half of the Drood story (a must for any continuation), avoids the unconvincing placement of the ring in Edwin’s pocket, and reflects Dickens’s approach to storytelling as evidenced by his other novels. A promising start, perhaps, but was this enough?
Having never written a novel before, the idea of transforming my continuation into a fill-blooded work of fiction seemed far fetched. But the thought prayed on my mind, and at two o’clock one morning, I had my Eureka moment. Dickens didn’t just die before completing the Drood story; he was killed to prevent him from completing it. An intriguing premise, but now I needed a motive for the author’s murder and a protagonist clever enough to find something in the Drood continuation to expose Dickens’s killer.
The more I read about Dickens, the more I became aware of a darker side to his life. In the space of a year, he met Ellen Ternan, a London stage actress, half his age; made her his mistress; and separated from his wife of fourteen years and ten live births. It’s even rumored that he fathered an illegitimate child with his young paramour. Fertile ground here, then, for secrets and motives, more than enough for me to embed my Drood continuation in a broader mystery surrounding Dickens himself.
As for my protagonist, I wanted someone who was far from fiction’s stereotypical detectives, neither a Sherlock Holmes nor a Sam Spade. I settled on a diffident, middle-aged, retired bookkeeper (think of a latter-day Mr Pickwick). Dunston Burnett, as I named him, does, however, have two sleuthing talents. He has the uncanny ability to join the dots in new ways, and even conjure up as yet unseen dots to create a picture invisible to everyone else. Unlike Sherlock’s always-correct deductions, Dunston’s ‘pre-ductions’, as his policeman friend calls them, are usually wrong but on the odd occasion when they are right, they are breath-takingly so. And he can be determinedly stubborn. Once he gets his teeth into something, he has the perseverance of King Bruce’s spider.
The Drood continuation, the motive behind Dickens’s murder, and my amateur sleuth are the building blocks that underpin my debut novel, Immortalised to Death. The glue holding them together is the tension running throughout the story between Dunston’s limited detective skills – pre-ductions and tenacity – and the apparently perfect crimes confronting him. How does he fare? It’s mixed. His envisioned conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood takes him a long way to solving the bigger mystery surrounding the death of Dickens, but not all the way. It’s not until the very last chapter that an unexpected event reveals to Dunston who really took the life of England’s foremost novelist.
Immortalised to Death was released on September 26, 2023, and is available on Amazon.com and Bookshop.org. To learn more about Immortalised to Death and the other two books comprising The Dunston Burnett Trilogy (Fatally Inferior, forthcoming September 2024, and The Séance of Murder, forthcoming September 2025) please visit my website: lynsquiremysteries.com.
Lyn Squire was born in the UK and educated at Cambridge University. He now lives in Springfield, Virginia. During his career as a development specialist, he served as Director of the World Bank’s Research Department and was the founding president of the Global Development Network, an organization dedicated to promoting scholars from developing countries. He now writes mysteries.
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