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The Mystery of Edwin Drood: The Eternal Literary Enigma of Charles Dickens' Unfinished Final Novel

Its solution remains a mystery to this day...

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For fans of mysteries and crime fiction, a brand-new book promises a fresh literary case to crack—indeed, the appeal of a thoroughly satisfying, now-it-all-makes-sense solution motivates many of us to power through the most impenetrable of narratives. But how do you solve a book's mystery if its narrative doesn't have an ending? 

Such is the case of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens' unfinished final novel. The famed English author had completed just six of the serial mystery narrative's planned twelve installments before his death on June 9, 1870. He left behind no outline or solution to the mystery established in the first six installments. Ever since, readers, writers, and scholars have debated its solution—with a number of authors penning their own ending.

Dickens' narrative centers on Edwin Drood, a young bachelor set to marry the breathtaking Rosa Bud. Edwin’s uncle, Mister John Jasper, is secretly in love with Rosa and jealous of his nephew’s betrothal to the beautiful woman. On Christmas Eve, Edwin receives an ominous message from a stranger. He does his best to clear the cryptic warning from his mind. But following day, Edwin is nowhere to be found. 

With no canonical ending, the true solution to Edwin's disappearance remains a mystery to this day. This hasn't stopped a number of writers, filmmakers, and radio producers to adapt Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and craft their own solution. All those interested in, big breath, the everlasting mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood should check out Pete Orford's The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’ Unfinished Novel & Our Endless Attempts to End It. Orford delivers a rich and detailed survey of literature's greatest riddle and the many interpretations of Dickens' perplexing final work that have followed in its wake.

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Curious about The Mystery of Edwin Drood itself? In the following excerpt we get a glimpse into the relationship between Edwin and his uncle Jasper. Based on their interactions, Jasper isn’t exactly the warmest uncle, and Edwin doesn’t seem to pay it any serious mind. Jasper is also extremely quiet during a dinner party...but could he be plotting something far more sinister? 

Read an excerpt from The Mystery of Edwin Drood below, then download the book!




The Mystery of Edwin Drood

By Charles Dickens

Sounds of recognition and greeting pass between the Reverend Septimus and somebody else, at the stair-foot. Mr. Jasper listens, starts from his chair, and catches a young fellow in his arms, exclaiming:

‘My dear Edwin!’

‘My dear Jack! So glad to see you!’

‘Get off your greatcoat, bright boy, and sit down here in your own corner. Your feet are not wet? Pull your boots off. Do pull your boots off.’

‘My dear Jack, I am as dry as a bone. Don’t moddley-coddley, there’s a good fellow. I like anything better than being moddley-coddleyed.’

With the check upon him of being unsympathetically restrained in a genial outburst of enthusiasm, Mr. Jasper stands still, and looks on intently at the young fellow, divesting himself of his outward coat, hat, gloves, and so forth. Once for all, a look of intentness and intensity—a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection—is always, now and ever afterwards, on the Jasper face whenever the Jasper face is addressed in this direction. And whenever it is so addressed, it is never, on this occasion or on any other, dividedly addressed; it is always concentrated.

‘Now I am right, and now I’ll take my corner, Jack. Any dinner, Jack?’

Mr. Jasper opens a door at the upper end of the room, and discloses a small inner room pleasantly lighted and prepared, wherein a comely dame is in the act of setting dishes on table.

‘What a jolly old Jack it is!’ cries the young fellow, with a clap of his hands. ‘Look here, Jack; tell me; whose birthday is it?’

‘Not yours, I know,’ Mr. Jasper answers, pausing to consider.

‘Not mine, you know? No; not mine, I know! Pussy’s!’

Fixed as the look the young fellow meets, is, there is yet in it some strange power of suddenly including the sketch over the chimneypiece.

‘Pussy’s, Jack! We must drink Many happy returns to her. Come, uncle; take your dutiful and sharp-set nephew in to dinner.’

As the boy (for he is little more) lays a hand on Jasper’s shoulder, Jasper cordially and gaily lays a hand on his shoulder, and so Marseillaise-wise they go in to dinner.

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‘And, Lord! here’s Mrs. Tope!’ cries the boy. ‘Lovelier than ever!’

‘Never you mind me, Master Edwin,’ retorts the Verger’s wife; ‘I can take care of myself.’

‘You can’t. You’re much too handsome. Give me a kiss because it’s Pussy’s birthday.’

‘I’d Pussy you, young man, if I was Pussy, as you call her,’ Mrs. Tope blushingly retorts, after being saluted. ‘Your uncle’s too much wrapt up in you, that’s where it is. He makes so much of you, that it’s my opinion you think you’ve only to call your Pussys by the dozen, to make ’em come.’

‘You forget, Mrs. Tope,’ Mr. Jasper interposes, taking his place at the table with a genial smile, ‘and so do you, Ned, that Uncle and Nephew are words prohibited here by common consent and express agreement. For what we are going to receive His holy name be praised!’

‘Done like the Dean! Witness, Edwin Drood! Please to carve, Jack, for I can’t.'

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  • An illustration from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This sally ushers in the dinner. Little to the present purpose, or to any purpose, is said, while it is in course of being disposed of. At length the cloth is drawn, and a dish of walnuts and a decanter of rich-coloured sherry are placed upon the table.

‘I say! Tell me, Jack,’ the young fellow then flows on: ‘do you really and truly feel as if the mention of our relationship divided us at all? I don’t.’

‘Uncles as a rule, Ned, are so much older than their nephews,’ is the reply, ‘that I have that feeling instinctively.’

‘As a rule! Ah, may-be! But what is a difference in age of half-a-dozen years or so? And some uncles, in large families, are even younger than their nephews. By George, I wish it was the case with us!’


‘Because if it was, I’d take the lead with you, Jack, and be as wise as Begone, dull Care! that turned a young man gray, and Begone, dull Care! that turned an old man to clay.—Halloa, Jack! Don’t drink.’

‘Why not?’

‘Asks why not, on Pussy’s birthday, and no Happy returns proposed! Pussy, Jack, and many of ’em! Happy returns, I mean.’

Laying an affectionate and laughing touch on the boy’s extended hand, as if it were at once “his giddy head and his light heart, Mr. Jasper drinks the toast in silence.

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'Hip, hip, hip, and nine times nine, and one to finish with, and all that, understood. Hooray, hooray, hooray!—And now, Jack, let’s have a little talk about Pussy. Two pairs of nut-crackers? Pass me one, and take the other.’ Crack. 

‘How’s Pussy getting on Jack?’

‘With her music? Fairly.’

‘What a dreadfully conscientious fellow you are, Jack! But I know, Lord bless you! Inattentive, isn’t she?’

‘She can learn anything, if she will.’

‘If she will! Egad, that’s it. But if she won’t?’

Crack!—on Mr. Jasper’s part.

‘How’s she looking, Jack?’

Mr. Jasper’s concentrated face again includes the portrait as he returns: ‘Very like your sketch indeed.’

‘I am a little proud of it,’ says the young fellow, glancing up at the sketch with complacency, and then shutting one eye, and taking a corrected prospect of it over a level bridge of nut-crackers in the air: ‘Not badly hit off from memory. But I ought to have caught that expression pretty well, for I have seen it often enough.’

Crack!—on Edwin Drood’s part.

Crack!—on Mr. Jasper’s part.”

'In point of fact,’ the former resumes, after some silent dipping among his fragments of walnut with an air of pique, ‘I see it whenever I go to see Pussy. If I don’t find it on her face, I leave it there.—You know I do, Miss Scornful Pert. Booh!’ With a twirl of the nut-crackers at the portrait.

Crack! crack! crack. Slowly, on Mr. Jasper’s part.

Crack. Sharply on the part of Edwin Drood.

Silence on both sides.

‘Have you lost your tongue, Jack?’

‘Have you found yours, Ned?’

‘No, but really;—isn’t it, you know, after all—’

Mr. Jasper lifts his dark eyebrows inquiringly.

Isn’t it unsatisfactory to be cut off from choice in such a matter? There, Jack! I tell you! If I could choose, I would choose Pussy from all the pretty girls in the world.’

‘But you have not got to choose.’

‘That’s what I complain of. My dead and gone father and Pussy’s dead and gone father must needs marry us together by anticipation. Why the—Devil, I was going to say, if it had been respectful to their memory—couldn’t they leave us alone?’

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‘Tut, tut, dear boy,’ Mr. Jasper remonstrates, in a tone of gentle deprecation.

'Tut, tut? Yes, Jack, it’s all very well for you. You can take it easily. Your life is not laid down to scale, and lined and dotted out for you, like a surveyor’s plan. You have no uncomfortable suspicion that you are forced upon anybody, nor has anybody an uncomfortable suspicion that she is forced upon you, or that you are forced upon her. You can choose for yourself. Life, for you, is a plum with the natural bloom on; it hasn’t been over-carefully wiped off for you—’

‘Don’t stop, dear fellow. Go on.’

‘Can I anyhow have hurt your feelings, Jack?’

‘How can you have hurt my feelings?’

‘Good Heaven, Jack, you look frightfully ill! There’s a strange film come over your eyes.’

Mr. Jasper, with a forced smile, stretches out his right hand, as if at once to disarm apprehension and gain time to get better. After a while he says faintly:

‘I have been taking opium for a pain—an agony—that sometimes overcomes me. The effects of the medicine steal over me like a blight or a cloud, and pass. You see them in the act of passing; they will be gone directly. Look away from me. They will go all the sooner.'

Want to keep reading? Download The Mystery of Edwin Drood today.

Is John Jasper truly such a horrid uncle that he would plot his own nephew’s disappearance? Or is he just a bitter man who wants nothing to do with his family? Dickens’ hints at it, but perhaps Jasper is just a red herring. Definitely dive into the novel yourself, and take your own guess at who could possibly be the culprit behind Edwin’s disappearance. Maybe you’ll also come with your own ending as well! 

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Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons