Not many fellow Charles Dickens fans I’ve met know of his last unfinished novel; The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Yes, it is a mystery novel. But what makes it unarguably one of the greatest mystery stories ever written is the fact it was never finished by the original author. To understand what the novel is all about, you need to know there are two stories that happen around the same time and they finally merge into one following the disappearance of one of the main characters.
John Jasper, an opium addict is a choirmaster in Cloisterham. One of Jasper’s students is Rosa Bud, who he secretly loves, but cannot marry because she is already engaged to his orphaned nephew, Edwin Drood. Rosa cannot stand Jasper’s advances any longer and she ends her engagement to Edwin out of fear that by marrying Jasper’s nephew, she will have to continue having him in her life forever.
Neville and Helena Landless, twins from Ceylon arrive at Cloisterham to be educated by the minor cannon Rev. Crisparkle and his mother. Crisparkle works at the same cathedral as Jasper and they are both colleagues. The Landless twins were ill-treated by their stepfather and this has made Neville short tempered.
Helena is enrolled into the same school as Rosa, where they become good friends. Neville is smitten by Rosa Budd and grows unhappy with Edwin who he thinks does not value her. But following a reconciliation dinner on Christmas Eve, the two attempt to become friends.
One evening, Edwin borrows Jasper’s coat and goes for a walk. He bumps into Princess Puffer who goes to the same opium den as Jasper. She tells him he is lucky his name is Edwin and not Ned because she had heard someone intending on killing a certain Ned. Edwin thinks this is not him since only his Uncle Jasper calls him Ned and his uncle would never kill him. That night, Edwin and Neville go for a walk by the river to get to know each other more. The next morning, Edwin is nowhere to be found.
Jasper is grief-stricken when informed that Edwin and Rosa had ended their engagement. Note that he reacts more strongly to this news than to the prospect that Edwin might be dead. Rev. Mr Crisparkle goes to the river and finds Edwin's watch and chain and his shirt pin. This allows Jasper to spread rumours that Neville had killed his nephew. Rosa’s lawyer feels there is not enough evidence to implicate Neville in Edwin’s disappearance and volunteers to have the Ceylonese stay at his house in London until a court proceeding is arranged. Half a year later, Jasper continues to pursue Rosa, even threatening to implicate her best friend’s twin brother further more in Edwin’s disappearance. She and Helena then escape to Edwin’s London home.
It’s not Edwin Drood. It’s one Dick Datchery who appears some time after Edwin's disappearance and secretly spies on Jasper. There are hints that he is someone in disguise. But we never find out who he is.
After reading a simplified version of Dicken’s original novel, I found that almost all the characters had some kind of motive to get rid of Edwin, which makes the mystery even more intriguing. It is important that we remember that Edwin was wearing Jasper’s coat before he disappeared. So there is a strong possibility whoever killed him might have wanted Jasper dead instead. Let’s check out the motives:
a) John Jasper
- Was mad about Rosa Bud, and his violent opium addiction might have influenced him to kill Drood.
- Only he refers to Edwin as ‘Ned’, and Princess Puff had clearly indicated someone with that name was in serious danger
- When told Rosa called off the engagement after the news that Edwin was missing, he collapses probably because he realized the murder that was unnecessary
- Half a year following Edwin's disappearance, he confesses his love for Rosa was strong enough to get rid of his own nephew.
- On the morning of Edwin’s disappearance, he was cheerful and full of energy while conducting the choir
b) Neville Landless
- A proud and hot tempered young man
- Never saw eye to eye with Drood
- Liked Rosa Bud and might have wanted her to himself
- Probably the last person to be seen with Edwin
- Edwin’s possessions were found by the riverside where both young men had visited
c) Rosa Bud
- Intended to kill Jasper to escape his advances, but killed Drood by accident since he was wearing his uncle's coat.
d) Helena Landless
- Murdered Drood before Neville could so her hot tempered brother would not be in trouble.
e) Rev. Crisparkle
- Killed Drood mistakenly instead of the immoral Jasper who was pursuing a girl who was already engaged to someone else.
f) Princess Puffer
- Accidentally killed Drood instead of Jasper to protect Rosa from the latter’s advances.
As seen from the list of clues and motives, Jasper is most probably the killer, or he could have simply been the scapegoat to serve as a distraction until the actual culprit is revealed at the end. Or perhaps, maybe Edwin is not dead at all and simply left town heartbroken after Rosa ended their engagement. However, three people related to Dickens; have supported the theory of Jasper being the killer.
1. John Forster had the plot described to him by Dickens: "The story...was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle."
2. Luke Fildes, who illustrated the story, said that Dickens had told him, when they were discussing an illustration, "I must have the double necktie! It is necessary, for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it."
3. Dickens' son Charles stated that his father had told him indirectly that Jasper was the murderer.
It would be wrong to just assume the ending based on the conventions of mystery novels we are familiar to. Bear in mind this novel precedes most famous mystery works like ‘The Woman in White’, the Agatha Christie novels and many more. It is best to speculate the novel’s solutions via Victorian and Dickensian themes.
a) Marital mismatch
A common theme in many of Dickens’ novels, like David and Dora in ‘David Copperfield’ where the solution is usually death. This theme might just support the theory that Rosa killed Edwin.
b) Secret identities
Another common theme for Dickens, the character Dick Datchery might just be another main character in disguise trying tricking others or discovering some kind of truth. Perhaps it is Edwin Drood himself in disguise to find out the true nature of those close to him in his absence, especially his uncle.
c) The Others
A common theme in many Victorian novels like ‘Dracula’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. Dickens might want to play around with the Victorians’ anxiety about foreign races, particularly the alleged savages of the regions under British rule, like Ceylon for instance. It is not stated in the novel to what extend Neville is Ceylonese, but it is very likely he is part Ceylonese or maybe even purely Ceylonese. As his family name suggests, he represents a landless people whose land is taken by the British, symbolized by his British stepfather. He fits the profile of what a Victorian might view as a savage; hot tempered and borderline violent.
Another common Victorian theme. Rosa's lawyer tells her that she has a substantial inheritance from her father and she would be forced to forfeit all of it to the state if she did not marry Edwin. It is law during Victorian times a women’s property falls to her husband’s name in marriage. This might have caused her to be unhappy as she has no control over her own inheritance simply because of being a woman.
The latest BBC TV film adaptation of the novel provided one of the best, if not the greatest ending to an unfinished novel by a famous Victorian writer. Spoiler alert! In this version, the plot twists are so unexpected that it would put legends like Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan to shame.
It is revealed that Edwin Drood's father had fathered several other illegitimate children during his business trips around the world. These include the Landless twins, who had actually come to England to meet their only surviving relative, Edwin. And if that is not shocking enough, another illegitimate Drood child is no other than John Jasper! Edwin's late mother pretended that Jasper was her brother to hide her husband's promiscuity. After all, it is quite common for wealthy Victorian men to take native mistresses during their business trips in colonial outposts worldwide.
Okay, so who is the killer? Well, turns out it was Jasper all along. No twist there you say? Well, get this. The murder victim was never Edwin Drood at all. He had left for Egypt to continue his father's business there and was too heartbroken after his break-up to even tell anyone. But know this; someone did die the night of Edwin's disappearance. It was Edwin Drood Senior, the biological father of Edwin Drood Junior, John Jasper and the Landless twins! He had been alive all along and had come to meet his one and only true son, the legitimate Edwin. Angry at his father for not loving him all these years, Jasper strangled his own father to death.
With such an amazing premise like this, it is a wonder that BBC never released it as a full-length feature film in cinemas instead.