Simmons gives us the supernatural. Simmons also gives us a mystery with an exceptional setting – the underground of Victorian London – sewers and crypts. But the real gift of Simmons over long novel is the microscope that he puts to the relationship of rival-collaborators, fellow authors, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
Narrator Collins (“My Dear Friends”) vacillates from respect to petty jealousy. He accuses Dickens of many of the same things that he himself is guilty of. This malignant envy actually leads to Collins’ plotting the murder of Dickens. The plot itself, taken from a half-finished serialized novel by Dickens grows ever more bizarre as Collins quaffs ever more of his beloved laudanum. Finally, when a scarab beetle burrows itself into Collins’ head, we need to take the veracity of Collins’ account with – if not a grain of salt – at least with a healthy dose of skepticism.
It took me too long to read this book to appreciate it properly. For a book of this length, I’ve found that I have to be geared up for it, and I perhaps read it at the wrong time.