The novel begins as John Jasper leaves a London opium den. The next evening, Edwin Drood visits Jasper, who is the choirmaster at Cloisterham Cathedral. Edwin confides that he has misgivings about his betrothal to Rosa Bud. The next day, Edwin visits Rosa at the Nuns' House, the boarding school where she lives. They quarrel good-naturedly, which they apparently do frequently during his visits. Meanwhile, Jasper, having an interest in the cathedral crypt, seeks the company of Durdles, a man who knows more about the crypt than anyone else.
Neville Landless and his twin sister Helena are sent to Cloisterham for their education. Neville will study with the minor canon, Rev. Mr. Crisparkle; Helena will live at the Nuns' House with Rosa. Neville confides to Rev. Mr Crisparkle that he had hated his cruel stepfather, while Rosa confides to Helena that she loathes and fears her music-master, Jasper. Neville is immediately smitten with Rosa and is indignant that Edwin prizes his betrothal lightly. Edwin provokes him and he reacts violently, giving Jasper the opportunity to spread rumours about Neville's reputation of having a violent temper. Rev. Mr Crisparkle tries to reconcile Edwin and Neville, who agrees to apologise to Edwin if the former will forgive him. It is arranged that they will dine together for this purpose on Christmas Eve at Jasper's home.
Rosa's guardian, Mr. Grewgious, tells her that she has a substantial inheritance from her father. When she asks whether there would be any forfeiture if she did not marry Edwin, he replies that there would be none on either side. Back at his office in London, Mr. Grewgious gives Edwin a ring which Rosa's father had given to her mother, with the proviso that Edwin must either give the ring to Rosa as a sign of his irrevocable commitment to her or return it to Mr. Grewgious. Mr. Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious's clerk, witnesses this transaction.
Next day, Rosa and Edwin amicably agree to end their betrothal.
They decide to ask Mr. Grewgious to break the news to Jasper, and Edwin intends to return the ring to Mr. Grewgious. Meanwhile, Durdles takes Jasper into the cathedral crypt. On the way there Durdles points out a mound of quicklime. Jasper provides a bottle of wine to Durdles. The wine is mysteriously potent and Durdles soon loses consciousness; while unconscious he dreams that Jasper goes off by himself in the crypt. As they return from the crypt, they encounter a boy called Deputy, and Jasper, thinking he was spying on them, takes him by the throat – but, seeing that this will strangle him, lets him go.
On Christmas Eve, Neville buys himself a heavy walking stick; he plans to spend his Christmas break hiking around the countryside. Meanwhile, Edwin visits a jeweller to repair his pocket watch; it is mentioned that the only pieces of jewellery that he wears are the watch and chain and a shirt pin. By chance he meets a woman who is an opium user from London. She asks Drood's Christian name and he replies that it is 'Edwin'; she says he is fortunate it is not 'Ned,' for 'Ned' is in great danger. He thinks nothing of this, for the only person who calls him 'Ned' is Jasper. Meanwhile, Jasper buys himself a black scarf of strong silk, which is not seen again during the course of the novel. The reconciliation dinner is successful and at midnight, Drood and Neville Landless leave together to go down to the river and look at a wind storm that rages that night.
The next morning Edwin is missing and Jasper spreads suspicion that Neville has killed him. Neville leaves early in the morning for his hike; the townspeople overtake him and bring him back to the city. Rev. Mr Crisparkle keeps Neville out of jail by taking responsibility for him: he will produce him anytime his presence is required. That night Jasper is grief-stricken when Mr. Grewgious informs him that Edwin and Rosa had ended their betrothal; he reacts more strongly to this news than to the prospect that Edwin be dead. The next morning Rev. Mr Crisparkle goes to the river weir and finds Edwin's watch and chain and his shirt pin.
A half-year later, Neville is living in London near Mr. Grewgious's office. Mr. Tartar introduces himself and offers to share his garden with Landless; Mr. Tartar's chambers are adjacent to Neville's above a common courtyard. A stranger who calls himself Dick Datchery arrives in Cloisterham. He rents a room below Jasper and observes the comings and goings in the area. On his way to the lodging the first time, Mr. Datchery asks directions from Deputy. Deputy will not go near there for fear that Jasper will choke him again.
Jasper visits Rosa at the Nuns' House and professes his love for her. She rejects him but he persists; he says that if she gives him no hope, he will destroy Neville, the brother of her dear friend Helena. In fear of Jasper, Rosa goes to Mr. Grewgious in London.
The next day Rev. Mr Crisparkle follows Rosa to London. When he is with Mr. Grewgious and Rosa, Mr. Tartar calls and asks if he remembers him. Rev. Crisparkle does remember him, as the one who years before saved him from drowning. They do not dare let Rosa contact Neville and Helena directly, for fear that Jasper may be watching Neville, but Mr. Tartar allows Rosa to visit his chambers to contact Helena above the courtyard. Mr. Grewgious arranges for Rosa to rent a place from Mrs. Billickin and for Miss Twinkleton to live with her there so that she can live there respectably.
Jasper visits the London opium den again for the first time since Edwin's disappearance. When he leaves at dawn, the woman who runs the opium den follows him. She vows to herself that she will not lose his trail again as she did after his last visit. This time she follows him all the way to his home in Cloisterham; outside she meets Mr. Datchery, who tells her Jasper's name and that he will sing the next morning in the cathedral service. On inquiry, Datchery learns she is called "Princess Puffer." The next morning she attends the service and shakes her fists at Jasper from behind a pillar.
Dickens's death leaves the rest of the story unknown; according to his friend and biographer John Forster, after Dickens had written him two brief letters which relate to the plot (but not the murder), he had supplied Forster with an outline of the full plot:
His first fancy for the tale was expressed in a letter in the middle of July. "What should you think of the idea of a story beginning in this way?—Two people, boy and girl, or very young, going apart from one another, pledged to be married after many years—at the end of the book. The interest to arise out of the tracing of their separate ways, and the impossibility of telling what will be done with that impending fate." This was laid aside; but it left a marked trace on the story as afterwards designed, in the position of Edwin Drood and his betrothed. I first heard of the later design in a letter dated "Friday the 6th of August 1869", in which after speaking, with the usual unstinted praise he bestowed always on what moved him in others, of a little tale he had received for his journal, he spoke of the change that had occurred to him for the new tale by himself. "I laid aside the fancy I told you of, and have a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The story, I learnt immediately afterward, was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle; the originality of which was to consist in the review of the murderer's career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell, to which his wickedness, all elaborately elicited from him as if told of another, had brought him. Discovery by the murderer of the utter needlessness of the murder for its object, was to follow hard upon commission of the deed; but all discovery of the murderer was to be baffled till towards the close, when, by means of a gold ring which had resisted the corrosive effects of the lime into which he had thrown the body, not only the person murdered was to be identified but the locality of the crime and the man who committed it. So much was told to me before any of the book was written; and it will be recollected that the ring, taken by Drood to be given to his betrothed only if their engagement went on, was brought away with him from their last interview. Rosa was to marry Tartar, and Crisparkle the sister of Landless, who was himself, I think, to have perished in assisting Tartar finally to unmask and seize the murderer.Edwin Drood: an orphan. When he comes of age, he plans to marry Rosa Bud and go to Egypt, working as an engineer with the firm in which his father had been a partner.
Rosa Bud: an orphan and Edwin Drood's fiancée. Their betrothal was arranged by their fathers.
John Jasper: the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, Edwin Drood's uncle and guardian, and Rosa Bud's music master. He secretly loves Rosa. He visits an opium den in London. It is implied (see evidence below) that Dickens intended to make him the murderer.
Neville and Helena Landless: twin orphans. They are from Ceylon, but it is not clear to what extent they are Ceylonese. In their childhood they were mistreated and deprived. Neville is immediately smitten by Rosa Bud. He is more proud than is good for him, and his integrity prevents him from making an insincere apology to Drood. Helena and Rosa become dear friends.
Rev. Septimus Crisparkle: minor canon of Cloisterham Cathedral and Neville Landless's mentor.
Mr. (Hiram) Grewgious: a London lawyer and Rosa Bud's guardian. He was a friend of her parents.
Mr. Bazzard: Mr. Grewgious's clerk. He is absent from that post when Datchery is in Cloisterham. He has written a play.
(Stony) Durdles: a stonemason. He knows more than anyone else about the Cloisterham Cathedral cemetery.
Deputy: a small boy. "Deputy" is not his name but rather a handle he uses for anonymity. If he catches Durdles out after 10 pm, he throws rocks at him until he goes home. Durdles pays him a halfpenny for doing so.
Dick Datchery: a stranger who takes lodging in Cloisterham for a month or two.
Princess Puffer: a haggard woman who runs a London opium den frequented by Jasper. She is unnamed in most of the book. "Princess Puffer" is the handle by which Deputy knows her.
Mr. (Thomas) Sapsea: a comically conceited auctioneer. By the time of Drood's disappearance he has become Mayor of Cloisterham.
The Dean: the Dean is the most senior clergyman at Cloisterham Cathedral, a man of some gravitas to whom others behave with fitting deference. In return he can be rather condescending.
Mr. Tope: the verger of Cloisterham Cathedral.
Mrs. Tope: the verger's wife. She cooks for Jasper and rents lodging to Datchery.
Miss Twinkleton: the mistress of the Nuns' House, the boarding school where Rosa lives.
Mrs. Tisher: Miss Twinkleton's assistant at the Nuns' House.
Mrs. Crisparkle: Rev. Crisparkle's widowed mother.
Mr. (Luke) Honeythunder: a bullying London philanthropist. He is Neville and Helena Landless's guardian.
Mr. Tartar: a retired naval officer. He resigned his commission in his late twenties when an uncle left him some property, but he lives in London, being unaccustomed to the space of a large estate.
Mrs. Billickin: a widowed distant cousin of Mr. Bazzard. She rents lodging in London to Rosa and Miss Twinkleton.
Although the killer is not revealed, it is generally believed that John Jasper, Edwin's uncle, is the murderer. There are three reasons:
- John Forster had the plot described to him by Dickens: "The story ... was to be that of the murder of a nephew by his uncle."
- Luke Fildes, who illustrated the story, said that Dickens had told him, when they were discussing an illustration, "I must have the double necktie! It is necessary, for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it."
- Dickens's son Charles stated that his father had told him unequivocally that Jasper was the murderer.
The book gives other hints:
- It describes a nightly scene in which Jasper goes secretly with Durdles to the graveyard. Jasper sees quicklime, at that time believed to hasten the decomposition of bodies.
- A day before he disappears, Edwin talks with Princess Puffer in the graveyard. She tells him "Ned" is in great danger. Later it turns out she has been following John Jasper from London, and he told her something in his state of intoxication. Furthermore, Jasper is the only one who refers to Edwin Drood as "Ned".
- On the day Edwin is reported missing, Jasper is informed by Grewgious, Rosa's guardian, that she and Edwin had broken off their engagement. Jasper collapses in a state of shock: could it be because of a murder that was unnecessary?
- Rosa Bud has always been afraid of John Jasper, and in the afternoon of a warm day, half a year after Edwin's disappearance, he tells her his love for her might be enough to get even his beloved nephew out of the way.
- Princess Puffer tries to follow Jasper, she suspects him of something because of what he said during his opium intoxication. Jasper says to Puffer at the end of the book: "Suppose you had something in your mind; something you were going to do... Should you do it in your fancy, when you were lying here doing this?... I did it over and over again. I have done it hundreds of thousands of times in this room."
- The very first hint (Mr. Jasper being concerned about what he may say while in an opium stupor) occurs in the first pages when Mr. Jasper listens to other opium users and says "unintelligible!". On his last opium trip, Puffer says to him, while he sleeps: "'Unintelligible' I heard you say, of two more than me. But don't ye be too sure always; don't ye be too sure, beauty!"
- Lastly, on the day of Edwin's disappearance, Jasper was in an ebullient state of mind all day, performing in the choir with great self-command.
Datchery appears some time after Edwin's disappearance and keeps a close eye on Jasper. A strong argument can be made for Tartar. Datchery is described at one point as walking with his hands clasped behind him – "as the wont of such buffers is", a walking stance frequently associated with naval officers pacing a quarter-deck. Frequently there are similar expressions used to describe both characters. There are hints that he is in disguise, and this theme has been taken up in adaptations of the story which try to solve the mystery: in the 1935 movie production of the story, starring Claude Rains as Jasper, Datchery is Neville Landless in disguise. A BBC radio drama of 1990, starring Ian Holm as Jasper, had Datchery as an actor who investigates mysteries between performances. In Leon Garfield's continuation, Datchery is a former actor turned private detective hired by Mr. Grewgious. In the 2012 BBC television drama, written by Gwyneth Hughes, Datchery is Mr. Bazzard.
Supplying a conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood has occupied writers from the time of Dickens's death to the present day.
The first three attempts to complete the story were undertaken by Americans. The first, by Robert Henry Newell, published under the pen name Orpheus C. Kerr in 1870, was as much a parody as a continuation, transplanting the story to the United States. It is a "burlesque" farce rather than a serious attempt to continue in the spirit of the original story.
The second ending was written by Henry Morford, a New York journalist. He travelled to Rochester with his wife and published the ending serially during his stay in England from 1871–1872. In this ending, Edwin Drood survives Jasper's murder attempt. Datchery is Bazzard in disguise, but Helena disguises herself as well to overhear Jasper's mumbling under the influence of opium. Entitled John Jasper's Secret: Sequel to Charles Dicken's Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was rumoured to have been authored by Charles Dickens, Jr. and Wilkie Collins, despite Collins' disavowal.
The third attempt was perhaps the most unusual. In 1873, a young Vermont printer, Thomas James, published a version which he claimed had been literally 'ghost-written' by him channelling Dickens's spirit. A sensation was created, with several critics, including Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist himself, praising this version, calling it similar in style to Dickens's work; and for several decades the James version of Edwin Drood was common in America. Other Drood scholars disagree. John C. Walters "dismiss[ed it] with contempt", stating that the work "is self-condemned by its futility, illiteracy, and hideous American mannerisms; the mystery itself becomes a nightmare, and the solution only deepens the obscurity."
Three of the most recent of the posthumous collaborations are The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Leon Garfield (1980), The Decoding of Edwin Drood (1980) by Charles Forsyte and The Mystery of Edwin Drood by David Madden (2011). There was also a humorous continuation by the Italian duo Fruttero & Lucentini entitled The D Case.
In January 1914, John Jasper (played by Frederick T. Harry) stood trial for the murder of Edwin Drood in London. The "trial" was organised by the Dickens Fellowship. G. K. Chesterton, best known for the Father Brown mystery stories, was the judge, and George Bernard Shaw was the foreman of the jury, which was made up of other authors. J. Cuming Walters, author of The Complete Edwin Drood, led the prosecution, while Cecil Chesterton acted for the defence.
Proceedings were very light-hearted; Shaw in particular made wisecracks at the expense of others present. For instance, Shaw claimed that if the prosecution thought that producing evidence would influence the jury then "he little knows his functions".
The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, Shaw stating that it was a compromise on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to convict Jasper but that they did not want to run the risk of being murdered in their beds. Both sides protested and demanded that the jury be discharged. Shaw claimed that the jury would be only too pleased to be discharged. Chesterton ruled that the mystery of Edwin Drood was insoluble and fined everyone, except himself, for contempt of court.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood was scheduled to be published in twelve instalments (shorter than Dickens's usual twenty) from April 1870 to February 1871, each costing one shilling and illustrated by Luke Fildes. Only six of the instalments were completed before Dickens's death in 1870. It was therefore approximately half finished.I: April 1870 (chapters 1–5)
II: May 1870 (chapters 6–9)
III: June 1870 (chapters 10–12)
IV: July 1870 (chapters 13–16)
V: August 1870 (chapters 17–20)
VI: September 1870 (chapters 21–23)
Planned instalments never published:VII: October 1870
VIII: November 1870
IX: December 1870
X: January 1871
XI, XII: February 1871
To date, there have been four film adaptations of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The first two were silent pictures released in 1909 and 1914. They are unavailable to the general public and have been little-seen since they were released. These were followed by:Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) released by Universal Pictures and directed by Stuart Walker, starring Claude Rains as Jasper, Douglass Montgomery as Neville, Heather Angel as Rosa, Valerie Hobson as Helena, and David Manners as Drood.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1993) starring Robert Powell as John Jasper, Andrew Sachs as Durdles, Freddie Jones as Mayor Sapsea, Glyn Houston as Mr. Grewgious and Gemma Craven as Miss Twinkleton.
There was a BBC television version, adapted with an original ending by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, aired on BBC Two on 10 and 11 January 2012 and on the PBS series Masterpiece on 15 April 2012.
Taina Edvina Druda (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) was a TV miniseries produced in Russia in 1980, adapted by Georgiy Kapralov and Alexander Orlov, directed by Alexander Orlov. Music by Eduard Artemiev. Starred Valentin Gaft, Avangard Leontiev, Elena Koreneva and Margarita Terekhova.
On 5 and 12 January 1953, the CBS Suspense radio programme aired a two-part adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It depicts John Jasper (played by Herbert Marshall) as the killer, tricked into giving himself away.
A five-part adaptation based on the Leon Garfield completion written by David Buck and directed by Gordon House was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the Classic Serial 4 March 1990 to 1 April 1990. The cast included Ian Holm as Jasper, John Moffatt as Datcherly, Gareth Thomas as Crisparkle, Michael Cochrane as Tartar, Timothy Bateson as Sapsea, Gordon Gostelow as Durdles and Anna Cropper as Mrs. Tope.
Following almost immediately on Charles Dickens's death, playwrights and theatre companies have mounted versions of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with varying degrees of popularity, success, and faithfulness to the original work.
The first modern major theatrical adaptation was a musical comedy with book, music, and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Because Dickens's book was left unfinished, the musical hinges upon a novel idea: the audience decides by vote which of the characters is the murderer. The musical's suspect pool includes John Jasper, Neville Landless, Rosa Bud, Helena Landless, Rev. Crisparkle, Princess Puffer, and Mr. Bazzard. Adding further interactivity, the audience also chooses either Rosa Bud, Neville Landless, Helena Landless, Rev. Crisparkle, or Mr. Bazzard to play the role of Dick Datchery since the cast votes that Edwin Drood actually was murdered and cannot be Dick Datchery. As well, one male and one female character are chosen to develop a romance together: Holmes wrote brief alternate endings for every possible voting outcome, even the most unlikely. For reasons of dramatic variety, John Jasper is presented as a red herring in the final solution. The audience is discouraged to vote for him, and in the final scene, he confesses to the murder only for Durdles to reveal that Jasper hallucinated the attack on Drood after stumbling upon the scene of the murder, and disposed of the body thinking he had committed the crime himself.
The production, originally known by the full name of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but re-titled halfway through its original run to simply Drood, was first produced in 1985 by the New York Shakespeare Festival, and then transferred to Broadway, where it ran for 608 performances (and 24 previews). It won five 1986 Tonys, including Best Musical, as well as Drama Desk and Edgar awards. The musical has since played successfully in numerous regional and amateur productions. In 2012, Aria Entertainment produced a London revival of the musical at the Landor Theatre in April/May, which transferred to the Arts Theatre, West End, for a limited season from 18 May to 17 June. The cast included former Coronation Street star Wendi Peters as Princess Puffer, with Natalie Day as Edwin Drood, Daniel Robinson as John Jasper and Victoria Farley as Rosa Budd. The production was directed by Matthew Gould.
Most recently, a popular Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company was incorporated into its 2012–2013 season. It was directed by Scott Ellis and starred Chita Rivera as Princess Puffer and Stephanie J. Block as Edwin Drood. The final "Murderer" tabulations assigned to each of the characters and the identity of "Datchery" were displayed overhead on chalkboards in the foyer, visible to the departing audience.