- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

THE LAST DICKENS
By Matthew Pearl
Random House, $25, 386 pages

DROOD
By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown, $26.99, 775 pages

GIRL IN A BLUE DRESS
By Gaynor Arnold
Crown, $25.99, 414 pages

THE ANGEL’S GAME
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated by Lucia Graves
Doubleday, $26.95, 531 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

To paraphrase Voltaire, if Charles Dickens (1812-70) had not existed, some enterprising novelist would have had to invent him. Fortunately for us, several now have reinvented the beloved Victorian novelist, in an enticing flurry of books based on Dickens‘ hectically industrious life as well as his imperishably popular fiction. 2009 may be the best year Dickens has enjoyed since the 1830s and the dawning of his then-unparalleled and still remarkable celebrity.

Richard Flanagan’s “Wanting,” recently reviewed in these pages, set the tone for this annus mirabilis, in positing a connection between Dickens and ill-fated polar explorer Sir John Franklin, envisioned as contrasting examples of the consequences of unlimited ambition and unrestrained desire. It’s a rich examination of the psychic roots and mixed motivations of the Victorian passion for adventure and conquest.

One of the incidental pleasures of Mr. Flanagan’s fine novel is its witty portrayal of Dickens‘ friend, collaborator and rival Wilkie Collins, himself both a highly successful novelist (“The Moonstone,” “The Woman in White”) and a neurotic bundle of insecurities. A similar Collins narrates Dan Simmons‘ imposing “Drood,” one of two recent novels that employ the history of Dickens‘ final novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (left unfinished when its author died), as the starting-point for a twisted tale of intrigue akin to such intricately plotted Dickens productions as “Bleak House,” “Great Expectations” and “Little Dorrit” (the latter recently dramatized in a superb BBC-TV miniseries).

Mr. Simmons‘ doorstopper, which weighs in at 784 pages, is a melodrama of proportions doubtless to be expected from the acclaimed author of ambitious fantasy and sci-fi multivolume series, as well as the occasional fit and trim novel of detection and/or suspense. Both the best and worst of all those genres emerge in “Drood,” which fictionalizes the fallout from a horrific experience that blighted Dickens‘ later years: an 1865 railway accident in which the novelist was an uninjured passenger who tended to the wounded and dying and was haunted for the remaining five years of his life by the Dantesque spectacle which he had inexplicably survived.

In Mr. Simmons‘ imagining (and Wilkie Collins’ excited voice), Dickens then and there encountered a cadaverous stranger, the eponymous Drood who commandeered the great author’s attention and set Dickens on a quest that took him (with Collins reluctantly in tow) to a “city” of opium-addicted ghouls located in the London sewers. Drood is a monster worthy of Bram Stoker or H.P. Lovecraft: a probably Egyptian serial killer gifted with mesmeric powers, and very likely a zombie “who” requires the life of his obsessive pursuer (Dickens) in order to prolong his own ghastly existence.

Over the top? Absolutely. This compulsively readable hugger-mugger, seasoned with an impressive plethora of period detail (albeit clogged by frequently wooden prose), delivers the goods — and improves whenever Mr. Simmons permits his imagination to roam unchecked. Its gradually clarifying plot (something about a scheme to transform London into a shrine worshipping the darker Egyptian gods) is sheer nonsense. But, when you stop to think about it, so is “Dracula“‘s. And who stops reading “Dracula” because Stoker’s prose lacks Jane Austen’s finesse and restraint?

Things are dialed back somewhat in “The Last Dickens,” in which the mystery of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” takes center stage — after a teasing prologue set in India (hint, hint) and featuring Charles Dickens‘ adult son Frank. The story then moves to the United States, where Dickens‘ authorized American publisher awaits delivery of the latest installment of the novel currently appearing in serial form. But when the publisher’s agent sent to claim the manuscript is murdered, the story remains untold and publishing executive John Osgood travels (with a fetching female secretary) to London, a journey into Dickens‘ personal history, and — it is hoped — an explanation.

Matthew Pearl, who had previously turned into fiction undocumented adventures of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his circle and also Edgar Allan Poe, keeps us guessing and provides some choice extra bits. There is the story of a “real” character (innkeeper’s son Edward Trood) who may have been Dickens‘ inspiration as well as a hilarious account of the Inimitable (Dickens‘ immodest self-entitlement) during his 1869 American lecture tour, imperiled by the importunate adoration of a female culture vulture.

All lead toward a somewhat risible melodramatic climax, but all the characters seem to be having a good time. Most readers probably will as well.

Something very different is offered in Gaynor Arnold’s poignant first novel, “Girl in a Blue Dress,” longlisted for Britain’s Booker and Orange Prizes. It reconfigures the unhappy later years of Catherine Dickens, who bore the Great Man (here, Alfred Gibson, lord and master to Dorothea, aka “Dodo”) eight chidren, grew overweight and unbeautiful and was eventually discarded when her husband pursued a relationship with an attractive younger woman.

The details are well known, but Mr. Arnold fleshes them out expertly, rigorously examining Dodo’s wounded, though dignified submission to her husband’s infuriating selfishness. Especially good use is made of the real Dickens‘ emotional fixation on his beautiful sister-in-law (who died young) and on the invented figure of Dorothea’s spitfire daughter Kitty, herself chained to an imprudent, smug husband.

One also admires Mr. Gaynor’s invention of a scene in which recently widowed Queen Victoria grants an audience to her fellow sufferer Dorothea (following Alfred’s lavish funeral at Westminster Abbey — to which Dodo was not invited), and another in which Dodo meets Wilhemina Ricketts, the young actress (standing in for history’s Ellen Terry) for whom Alfred had forsaken her. Only an unconvincingly modern feminist ending mars the vivid patchwork Mr. Gaynor has stitched together. Still, there is perhaps unintended irony in this immensely likable novel’s cruelest touch: despite its justifiable emphasis on a truly wronged woman, her oppressor is — surely unavoidably — portrayed as so charming and full of life and energy that he dominates every page.

Finally (surely not finally, one realizes), there is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel’s Game,” a serpentine, not to say loopy prequel and companion to its Spanish author’s 2001 international success, “The Shadow of the Wind.” This literally labyrinthine tale of the intersection of life with literature is so crammed with Gothic atmospherics, plots within plots and cloyingly coy literary allusions that one hesitates to recommend it to any reader who lacks unlimited time to plumb its depths. Yet there is a Faustian bargain struck, and Mr. Zafon’s anti-heroic protagonist, an ailing fiction writer who stumbles into an occluded mystery, does remind us of Dickens‘ Pip, and his misadventures of course awaken loud echoes of the plot of “Great Expectations” — Oh, what the heck. How can yet Another Dickens Novel be a bad thing? The Victorian colossus may indeed have merited the self-glorifying title The Inimitable. Still, everybody and his chambermaid and footman keeps on imitating him. May the perverse trend continue.

Bruce Allen is a freelance reviewer situated in Kittery, Maine.