By Harry B. Smith (1860-1936).
First appearance: Munsey's Magazine, December 1924.
Fictional nonfiction (15 pages).
"THE FAMOUS DETECTIVE APPLIES HIS CRITICAL METHOD TO THE MOST FASCINATING OF ALL LITERARY PUZZLES""IN the novel which he did not live to finish," Harry Smith tells us . . .
. . . Dickens had planned a story in which the plot should be the all-important thing, critics having found his other works lacking in plot interest. He determined to construct a novel in the style of his friend Wilkie Collins, with a plot that would keep the reader guessing. He succeeded so well that "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" has been a mystery for more than fifty years.We are forced by necessity to limit this post to an outline of Smith's long and involved article, so that brief excerpts must suffice:
I—THE MYSTERY OF CHARLES DICKENS'S LAST NOVEL
We may be thankful that Smith provides an admirably concise summary of the novel's main characters and altogether mysterious incidents:
. . . There are other mysteries [embedded in Edwin Drood], less conspicuous, but more fascinating to the reader . . .
II—SHERLOCK HOLMES SOLVES THE MYSTERY
. . . there are Dickensians far gone in Droodism who spend most of their leisure time in reading Dickens's last book. This novel becomes an obsession. . . .
. . . the literature that has been inspired by the puzzle of Dickens's last plot would require for its accommodation at least two of the widely advertised five-foot shelves. . . .
. . . Somewhat curiously, although the mystery has fascinated many men of letters, no professional detective has ever been consulted in the case; yet there are several well known investigators to whom it would be a simple one, compared to the baffling problems which they are sometimes called upon to solve. That the matter should be referred to an expert in criminology is no new idea of the present writer's. It was several months before the last of Sherlock Holmes's lamented deaths, as chronicled by his biographer, that I first thought of applying to that wizard of criminal investigation. . . .
DR. WATSON INTERVIEWS HOLMES
To begin with, The Great Detective is uninterested:
. . . "Watson, I don't think I should care to take the case. It is no pleasure to me to cooperate with the simpletons of the regular force, but this white-wigged amateur of yours insults my intelligence. Good God, Watson, I should think he would almost insult yours!" . . .
I MEET THE FAMOUS DETECTIVE
. . . but Holmes finally relents, launching into a lengthy discourse which includes, among so much else, these observations, often at Watson's expense:
. . . "Dickens was writing a novel, but a writer of fiction with a modern, or even a mid-Victorian period, must keep within the bounds of probability." . . .
. . . "As I have often told you, doctor," Holmes resumed, "one must begin an analysis by eliminating impossibilities." . . .
. . . "Your question is a pertinent one, doctor," replied Holmes. "Like all your questions, it would occur to any one of ordinary intelligence." . . .
. . . "This, I believe, is one of the elements of strength and originality in Dickens's plot. The criminal sounds the alarm and starts in motion the machinery that finally convicts—himself." . . .
WHY GREWGIOUS VISITED JASPER
For Holmes the actions of the lawyer in the plot are most telling but beyond poor Watson's ken:
. . . Watson gazed at Holmes in blank astonishment. Apparently used to that expression on his friend's face, the great detective continued . . .
. . . "Not so fast, my good Watson," said Holmes. "Admirable as your capabilities as a physician may be—I speak from hearsay only, as my own health is unimpaired—your knowledge of legal procedure is limited." . . .
JASPER THINKS HIMSELF A MURDERER
The fact of Jasper's addiction, to Holmes, is not a feeble attempt at sensationalism on Dickens's part:
. . . "I am no literary critic [Holmes says], but common sense tells me that an author does not make his villain a morphinomaniac subject to fits in moments of excitement, and does not send him on an opium spree just before he commits a crime, unless that author has a good reason for doing so . . . Why is opium in the story at all, if not for some purpose such as I have indicated? To deny that opium is in the novel for a purpose is to assert that Dickens devoted many pages to an irrelevant matter." . . .
. . . "Dickens described to the artist just what he wanted on that pictorial cover—some of the striking scenes in the story, as he had it outlined in his mind. The tomb scene, with Jasper, lantern in hand, confronting the menacing figure, is the most important feature of the cover design. It was to be the strongest climax in the novel." . . .
THE PROBLEM OF DATCHERY
Holmes scoffs at one theory that the mysterious character of Datchery was of the feminine persuasion:
. . . "My own opinion is that if Dickens intended to present Helena to his readers as an elderly gentleman wearing a white wig and 'buttoned up in a tightish blue surtout,' his sense of humor must have been in abeyance, and he was asking his readers to have the credulity of a child hearing a fairy tale. . . . Mr. Dickens was writing a modern novel, in which the plot, characters, and incidents must approximate real life, must be plausible and convincing. He could hardly ask his readers to believe that all his characters are such imbeciles that they cannot tell a masquerading girl from an elderly man. What is admissible in the Forest of Arden, or any other fairyland of fancy, becomes incredible in everyday life." . . .
. . . "The idea is essentially comic. Dickens, we know, took his plot very seriously, and the revelation of Datchery was to have been his strongest situation." . . .
IS DATCHERY BAZZARD IN DISGUISE?
To Holmes a minor character in Edwin Drood deserves much more attention than he usually gets; when told that "Dickens often introduces characters for incidental humor, and soon allows them to drop out of the story," Holmes demurs:
. . . "But Bazzard is not one of these transient comedy characters. He is not comic. He is negative, an uninteresting person. In fact, he completely realizes the type of man referred to in Dickens's notebook—'a sort of insect to be brushed aside'." . . .
MINOR MYSTERIES OF THE NOVEL
Having solved to his own satisfaction the major mysteries present in Edwin Drood—i.e., what happened to Drood and the identity of Datchery—Holmes admits that:
". . . it contains other mysteries—enigmas that will never be satisfactorily solved, and can only be vaguely guessed." . . .
And Holmes minimizes the importance of reports that Dickens revealed to others the outcome of his story:
. . . "I attach no importance whatever to such testimony," said Holmes. "My friend Watson states in one of his stories that I have no knowledge of literature. I don't deny the charge; but I am sure of one thing—no novelist with a complicat-ed plot in his mind is likely to go around telling it to his friends and relatives. Dickens guarded his plot jealously." . . .This article could be considered an example of metafiction: Since Holmes and Watson, fictional characters, analyze other fictional characters, you're safe in assuming that everything in it is really an expression of Harry Smith's ideas on the subject.
- If you would like more detailed summaries of Edwin Drood (with SPOILERS), go HERE and HERE.
- Harry B. Smith certainly wasn't as prolific as Charles Dickens as a writer (few are); he gravitated to music and the musical stage (which might explain his interest in Edwin Drood—remember that Jasper was a musician); for more about Smith go HERE (Wikipedia), HERE (FictionMags), and HERE (the IMDb).
- What we thought would be our last encounter with Edwin Drood is HERE; from there, if you have a mind to, you can backtrack to other related ONTOS posts.
- One of Smith's most famous compositions was "The Sheik of Araby"; a video performance (if that's the right word) of that tune is on YouTube HERE (2 minutes 30 seconds—at least it was there last time we checked).
The bottom line: "At night when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep."
— Harry B. Smith