Holmes and Drood

It’s a good time for Victorianists to be in London; after my visit to the British Library’s Gothic exhibition last week, which featured The Mystery of Edwin Drood among its collection, I then crossed town to visit the Museum of London for their exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. With Drood still on my mind from the first exhibit (who am I kidding – Drood is always on my mind), these two exhibitions bookended the contrasting ways to approach and categorise Drood – is it a spine-tingling, Gothic exploration of one man’s madness, or is it a classic whodunit for a detective to solve? Those who have positioned themselves in the latter camp are faced with a quandary – how do you propose the definitive solution? How do you show that your answer carries more weight than those before it? It is a matter of authority, and for many the emphasis is on authority: either they link back to Dickens’s notes, or previous novels, for support, or, take more aggressive attempts to stamp authorial approval on their solution, such as Henry Morford pretending his work was by Charles Dickens Jnr, or Thomas Power James calling upon the ghost of Dickens himself.

The alternative route to gaining authority for a solution is to call in the experts, but for many this has involved not a chat with an academic, but the use of the ultimate expert on mystery, Mr Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. True, he is a fictional character, but as the exhibition argued, many have not been deterred by this one small drawback, with Conan Doyle besieged in his life with letters to Holmes, offering advice on beekeeping or applying for the role of housekeeper. The Mystery of Edwin Drood stands alongside Jack the Ripper as the most popular cases for which Holmes has been referred to again and again. Both are mysteries that thwart a final solution, and in both cases the employment of Holmes on the case is wishful thinking inspired by the utmost faith in Holmes to always get it right – in a matter where choosing the right solution boils down to opinion over evidence, Holmes’ opinion has a better track record of being correct.

One of the early solutionists to employ Holmes in the mystery of Drood was Andrew Lang – unsurprising given that he was a Holmes enthusiast as much as a Dickensian. Lang was locked in a continuing dispute with J. C. Walters over the true identity of Datchery and whether Edwin was dead or alive, that spilled into several letters pages of the national press. His short piece, “At The Sign of the Ship” (1905) was therefore prompted primarily by Walters’ latest argument in addition to Richard Proctor’s Watched by the Dead (1887), but depicted as a dialogue between Holmes and Watson in response to reading the works of these two scholars. It is at once a way of making an academic article far more engaging, and also a sneaky way of distancing Lang himself from the argument and allowing Holmes to bring his reputation to bear behind Lang’s ideas.

For Lang, Drood is still a work of fiction for Holmes to muse upon as a training exercise, but others have placed Holmes directly in Cloisterham, interacting directly with the characters of Drood and in utter ignorance of Dickens’s book. More recently, Peter Rowland’s The Disappearance of Edwin Drood (1991) had John Jasper call upon Holmes to help him search for his nephew. There are neat crossover this affords, such as Holmes and Jasper’s favouring of opium which allows for Rowland to suggest that Holmes himself has frequented the same den as Jasper before the case begins. Equally it foregoes the need to publish Dickens’s text followed by the solution, as other novelists have done, instead having the story start, as all Holmes novels do, in Holmes apartment where the crime has been committed before the novel’s commencement and is therefore only ever experienced in retrospect. One issue to be got over is the time difference – Drood was written in 1870 whereas Holmes did not begin his investigations with Watson until 1887, so in Rowland’s book the mystery surrounding Edwin Drood is an old one, and Jasper, in his grief, has had a breakdown so that he is continually living in the year 1870. This in itself is still troubling for those who argue that Drood is set in the mid-1840s, much further back than the time in which it was written and this reminds us of the very different eras in which the two fictions exist.

It is so very easy to sandwich all Victorian fiction together as contemporary, but the London of Holmes is set in a very different time to the London of Drood, and it is important to think what impact the drawing together of Holmes and Drood has on our understanding of Dickens’s text. In Rowland’s book, Jasper states “Only you, Mr Holmes, can solve this most baffling of problems”, and the significance of this lies not in that the authority Holmes gives to a solution, but rather the authority he gives to the mystery itself – “this most baffling of problems”. Whether reading Dickens’s book as a diversion, or walking the streets of Cloisterham, the simple fact that Holmes should give his time to the case is itself a recommendation of its complexity. In The Adventures of Black Peter Watson notes how Holmes ‘lived for his art’s sake’:

He frequently refused help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.

Holmes only takes cases that intrigue him – to take on The Mystery of Edwin Drood is an endorsement of its fiendish complexity. When Holmes first appeared, Forster’s biography had already been published and was but one of several sources providing details of Dickens’s intentions for the end of Drood, which should by rights have stifled speculation there and then. Instead what occurred is an explosion of solutions and ingenious theories far beyond that which first appeared in the decade following Dickens’ death.  The intrigue of Drood has less to do with the uncertainty of Dickens’s intentions and more to do with the simultaneous development of the detective genre and a passionate group of devotees to spotting and solving perplexing crimes. Far from solving the mystery, Sherlock Holmes is responsible for creating it.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

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  1. Pete,
    I have a reprint by the Aspen Press, 1973, titled “Sherlock Holmes and the Drood Mystery” by Edmund L. Pearson excerpted from his 1914 work “The Secret Book”, chapter “Discken’s Secret Book”. It is a pastiche that places Holmes and Watson at the scene of the crime and is very funny. The publishers, Tom and Enid Schantz of the Rue Morgue bookstore, added commentary and wonderful illustrations in the style of Fritz Eichenberg’s wood engravings.

    1. Ah, another book to add to my reading list! Thank you John, I shall track down a copy and enjoy reading that very much.

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