“Taut” is not an adjective one usually associates with Charles Dickens. The great English writer composed novels that brim with expansive observations and leisurely turns of phrase. His vibrant, oddball characters tend to stretch and embellish his narratives, rather than merely serve them; sometimes the characters seem to have generated themselves by sheer force of personality. Dickens might be the antidote to our Twitter-infected age.

So the Masterpiece Classic dramatization of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, airing on PBS on Sunday, April 15 (check local listings), is all the more remarkable: taut, suspenseful, and a mere two hours long, this BBC coproduction showcases quirky characters and engrossing atmospherics that feel authentically Dickensian. What other author would move with such relish from an opium den to a London law office to the parlor of an improbably kindly churchman named Crisparkle? What other author would come up with a character like Durdles, a gruff, boozing stonemason who talks about himself in the third person (“Weighed down by life, is Durdles”) and boasts with gloomy smugness about his knowledge of a cathedral’s crypts?

Admittedly, contemporary author Gwyneth Hughes has also had a hand in this small-screen Drood, which makes its debut as the world is celebrating the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth. (The program aired in the UK earlier this year.) A ghostwriter’s involvement is unavoidable: When Dickens died, in 1870, he left Drood unfinished, presenting his contemporaries and future generations with a tantalizing puzzle: What happens to the tale’s eponymous protagonist, a young man who disappears under suspicious circumstances part way through the manuscript? Is Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, involved in the disappearance, as certain clues seem to indicate? Or is Jasper’s curious behavior a red herring?

Over the years, numerous writers have attempted to solve the mystery or finish the novel, with results that range, as English author Edward Blishen wryly observed, “from works expressing utter confidence (A Great Mystery Solved, by Gillan Vase, 1878), to works expressing utter despair (‘The Drood Mystery Insoluble,’ by Sir J. C. Squire, 1919).” In 1914, G. K. Chesterton even presided as judge over a Drood-derived mock trial: Jasper was in the dock, accused of murdering his nephew. (The jury, whose members included George Bernard Shaw, found Jasper guilty of manslaughter. Chesterton pronounced all the trial’s participants in contempt of court.) The Drood mystery acquired a participatory element again in the 1980s, when writer-composer Rupert Holmes’s musical version ran on Broadway; the show allowed the audience to vote on the identity of Drood’s murderer. (A revival starring Chita Rivera will hit New York this coming fall.)

For the Masterpiece Drood, author Hughes supplies a dramatic and elegant answer to Dickens’s riddle, preparing the way for it by streamlining the book’s early scenes and imbuing the whole tale with propulsive momentum. At the same time, she and director Diarmuid Lawrence give subtle underscoring to the themes of free will and community—concepts that are among the story’s central concerns.

Both motifs turn up early on in the drama, which takes place around and in an Anglican cathedral in the town of Cloisterham. Jasper (an aptly brooding Matthew Rhys) serves as the cathedral’s choirmaster; the Rev. Crisparkle (Rory Kinnear, channeling awkward charm) is a minor canon. In the show’s opening sequence, the cathedral’s silhouette rears up in a pool of golden light—an opium-fueled hallucination, we subsequently learn. Moments later, Jasper—an inveterate loner, running late—races to join the subset of the cathedral community that has gathered for an evensong service. A reading from Ezekiel 18:27 (“When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive”) serves as an effective bit of foreshadowing, but also draws attention to the idea of choice.

Choice initially seems to be in short supply for Drood (Freddie Fox, deftly suggesting a goodhearted nincompoop), whose dead father has arranged for him to marry the sulky Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant). When Drood disappears after quarreling with Neville Landless (Sacha Dhawan), an enigmatic visitor newly arrived from Ceylon, the search for answers involves the broader Cloisterham community—including the grotesque Durdles (Ron Cook).

The story’s surprise ending calls into question the role of choice in human actions, while arguing that a healthy, resilient community is one that can welcome newcomers. Perhaps, as Chesterton remarked in an essay on Drood, no wrap-up of the conundrum can be wholly satisfying, given that it will not be Dickens’s wrap-up. “Even if we get the right solution, we shall not know that it is right,” Chesterton mourned. Perhaps; but Masterpiece Classic’s Drood is a smart, compelling substitute for the Drood that might have been.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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