Quercus £14.99 (775pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent bookshop: 0870 079 8897; Harvill Secker £12.99 (338pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Drood, By Dan Simmons
The Last Dickens, By Matthew Pearl

Here are three unsolved mysteries. How did Charles Dickens intend his last novel to end? Why have we recently had a outbreak of fiction inspired by it? And, perhaps strangest of all, why do we have such an enduring interest in the secrets of the Victorians?

In March 1870, Queen Victoria granted Dickens a private interview. Afterwards, he wrote to the Clerk of the Privy Council, saying that if the Queen was interested, he would give her a sneak preview of what lay in store for readers of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Unfortunately, Victoria wasn't interested. Less than three months later Dickens suffered a fatal heart attack.

He had written only six of the projected 12 monthly numbers. But it was already clear that the book was something of a departure for him. It was to be shorter than usual – though its projected length of nearly 200,000 words would have made it much longer than most modern novels. It was a mystery reminiscent of The Moonstone, the recent bestseller written by Dickens's friend and son-in-law Wilkie Collins. The plot turns on the disappearance and possible murder of Edwin Drood. The principal suspect is Drood's uncle, John Jasper, cathedral precentor and opium addict, who nurses a sinister passion for Edwin's former fiancée.

Since 1870, there have been several attempts to complete the novel. Drood scholarship has also flourished. One theory, put forward by Edmund Wilson among others, speculates that the novel's resolution would have turned on mesmerism and Thuggee. Dickens wrote to his biographer Forster that he had "a very curious and new idea for my new story ... a very strong one, though difficult to work." There is hearsay evidence that under pressure of serial publication Dickens had lost his way in the plot, and no longer had a very clear idea of how it would end.

None of three recent novels connected with Edwin Drood continues Dickens's story. Instead, each author uses the book as a starting-point for his own. The British edition of Jean-Pierre Ohl's Mr Dick, translated by Christine Donougher (Dedalus, £9.99), was published at the end of the last year: a wonderfully inventive story of a feud between two French Drood scholars, interposed with the unreliable journal of a young Frenchman who visits Dickens just before he dies.

Dan Simmons's Drood is less concerned with Drood the novel than Drood the man. It's narrated by Wilkie Collins himself. He is unreliable too, because chronically jealous of his far more successful friend, he consumes industrial quantities of laudanum, and is routinely haunted by his own double.

In 1865, five years to the day before his death, the real Dickens was involved in a terrible train crash in Staplehurst, Kent. To add scandal to catastrophe, he was travelling with the young actress who was probably his mistress, and the young woman's mother. In Collins's narrative, Dickens encounters the nightmarish figure of Drood preying on the survivors at the scene. Drood has a face like a skull, lidless eyes, sharpened teeth, and a foreshortened nose – "more black slits opening into the grub-white face than a proper proboscis". He turns out to be an Egyptian zombie cannibal and the bastard son of Lord Lucan (a fictional peer, apparently). A dark quest takes Collins and Dickens into a phantasmagoric "Undertown" populated by feral children and opium addicts before a climax involving the writing of Edwin Drood, mesmerism, and the fraticidal relationship between the friends.

Simmons's novel is a long, overweight gothic fantasy, stuffed with the fruits of its author's research. The fictional Dickens, Collins and their world do not quite correspond with historical reality. But the story has a manic energy that compels shock and awe, if not belief. The closer it comes to fantasy, the better it becomes.

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl is more straightforward. It opens just after Dickens's death, and involves the efforts of one of his American publishers to safeguard his firm's profits by discovering how Dickens planned his last novel to end. But other forces are at work, involving murder, the opium trade, the Bengal Mounted Police, and the inspiration that gave Dickens the basis for Drood. The narrative moves from India to America to England. There's also a flashback, structurally awkward but perhaps the best part, describing Dickens's successful American lecture tour in 1867. It gives a vivid picture of Dickens as an international superstar, a cross between J K Rowling and John Lennon, hemmed in to the point of paranoia by his celebrity.

Pearl's research, like Simmons's, is often impressive, but he doesn't have a convincing sense of British contexts, or much of an ear for British idiom. There's a less than plausible portrait of Frederic Chapman, Dickens's London publisher, who uses an almost wilfully American interjection, "Say", and speaks in a sub-Wodehousian lingo.

Barring a literary miracle such as the discovery of Dickens's notes, we shall never know how he planned to resolve The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But it isn't surprising that three very different authors should write novels that reflect on the subject. Some authors, from Shakespeare to Woolf, via Austen and Poe, acquire a status that lends itself to fictional exploitation. Dickens is exceptionally well-endowed in this respect, not least because his last novel was an unfinished mystery and so, in a sense, were aspects of his own life. In all three novels, the mystery of Edwin Drood becomes to a large extent the mystery of Charles Dickens.

But there is another, wider influence at work. These fictional tributes to Dickens also point to our continuing fascination with the Victorian period, in fact and fiction. The evidence is ready to hand, for the Victorians documented their world with a thoroughness no previous era had achieved. The complex underworld of Victorian life has never been entirely concealed from view, but more of its machinery has become easily accessible in the last 30-odd years.

The Victorians traditionally stand for sobriety, thrift, hard work, the sanctity of the family, strict sexual morality, social convention, and unquestioning respect for authority, secular and religious – all qualities, perhaps, that many of us feel our society lacks. What we really enjoy are glimpses of the darker characteristics that underpinned the publicly proclaimed virtues of our 19th-century forbears. There, of course, lies the heart of the mystery, the reason for our interest: this is the world that made our own; these are the people who made ourselves.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'Bleeding Heart Square' (Penguin)

Dickens's last years

Following his separation from his wife and his affair with young Nelly Ternan, Dickens's writing began to stumble. On 9 June 1865, he and Nelly were on the train that crashed at Staplehurst, killing 10. He rescued many survivors – and the manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend'. He never really recovered from the accident, but toured Britain and America against the advice of his doctor. He died, five years exact-ly from the day of the crash, having half-written 'Edwin Drood'. He is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own