Of Dickens and Assassins

Dear Charlie,

I’m not sure if there’s a Venn diagram that shows the overlap between video games and classic literature, but if there is I would imagine that it’s not large. Being a fan of both, then, you can imagine my joy when my pre-ordered copy of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” arrived, complete with its bonus content “The Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy.” Which brings me to another very small Venn diagram, one that would show the overlap between “Charles Dickens” and “badass.” But this preview would fit there nicely:

Pretty cool, eh?

Previous iterations of the Assassin’s Creed series have been set in Renaissance Italy, the American Revolution, the Caribbean in the 18th century and the French Revolution, which has pleased both the historian in me and that side of me that enjoys sneaking up behind bad guys and stabbing them in the neck. But if Ubisoft developers had personally interviewed me about what my ideal game would look like they couldn’t have come much closer than they have with Syndicate. I’ve been playing the game (I would go with “enthusiastically,” my long-suffering husband may have used the word “obsessively”) for a few weeks now and my love knows no bounds.

Set in London in 1868, you play as either Jacob or Evie Frye, twin assassins whose mission it is to free London from a notorious gang (the ‘Blighters’) and their Templar leader by building up their own gang (the ‘Rooks’), assassinating various Blighter ringleaders, and freeing children from illegal factory work. Unfortunately, the London constabulary don’t look kindly on you running up to people and murdering them on the street, even if they are gang members, and will intervene. Stealth is paramount.

But let me talk about where you come in. Jacob and Evie run into you (literally) in one of the game’s first cut-scenes, looking distracted but spry as you talk about Edwin Drood (I’m not convinced you were even thinking about Drood in 1868, but I’ll go with it).

dickens_syndicateLater in the game we run into you in a pub, where Jacob and Evie learn of your membership in The Ghost Club and where you draft the two to help investigate and debunk a series of supernatural mysteries. So far I’ve only completed your first mission, which involved tracking down and killing someone pretending to be “Spring-Heeled Jack” (hey, I’m an assassin, that’s what I do), but later missions involve investigating haunted houses and kindnapping hypnotists. Sounds awesome.

I love and appreciate the research that Ubisoft’s developers have put into your character, and that they’ve built the game’s missions around a real club that you belonged to. But more than that I appreciate that an entertainment medium that is often decried or dismissed as time-wasting escapism is, in fact, teaching people about important eras and historical figures in an immersive and natural way.

Just another night of sabotage and mayhem.

Just another night of sabotage and historically accurate mayhem.

I am the first to admit, for example, that my knowledge of the American Revolution is sketchy at best, but walking through Boston with Samuel Adams or punching George Washington in the head (not my finest moment, I admit) puts personalities and context to faces and names and, although it sounds completely clichéd, really brings history to life. I can read about the Boston Tea Party, sure, but how much cooler is it to say “yeah, I helped heave crates of tea into Boston Harbour while angry British soldiers tried to shoot me. That was a hell of a night.”

It’s the same thing in this installment. Child labour was terrible, and reading about efforts to stop the practice are interesting, but sneaking into a factory undetected to free groups of coal-shovelling children, while dispatching their cruel overseers with a series of weapons designed for me by Alexander Graham Bell is undoubtedly more rewarding. Bell? A bit chatty, but a total sweetheart.

My Rooks are badasses, but well-read badasses.

My Rooks are badasses, but well-read badasses.

London in the 19th century is not just a computer-generated series of buildings and streets and carriages but a fully immersive world. As Evie (by far the cooler twin, and the first playable female character in the series – hooray!) roams the city we hear snatches of popular songs coming from pubs (they’re included on the soundtrack too, which is nice) and collect local beers and contemporary illustrations. Even my band of Rooks, usually intent on causing mayhem, are surprisingly well-read. At one point I was standing in an alley and when one of them (a woman in a fetching green jacket, trousers and a bowler) ran up to me and blurted out “Have you read ‘The Moonstone’ yet? It’s wonderful!” I don’t think a video game character has ever given me a book recommendation, much less with such breathless enthusiasm. (With a large chunk of side missions devoted to you, my friend, we mustn’t begrudge Wilkie Collins his moment.)

What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to walk away from a world you’ve explored and historical figures you’ve conversed with without at least a passing interest spilling over into reality. And if someone, somewhere, picks up a book by Charles Dickens because they once met him on a London street and helped him catch a phony Spiritualist, surely that’s not a waste of time. Now, let’s press Play and continue our adventures!

Yours in in ghost-hunting camaraderie,

Melissa

 

Reviewing Simmons’ Drood

Dear Charlie,

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Drood

I recently finished reading Dan Simmon’s behemoth of a book, Drood, and I’ve been putting off telling you about it, myfriend, because it’s been very difficult to put my feelings into sentences that don’t end in hmmngfhhhh (that’s the closest I can come to depicting a conflicted sigh). It was at the same time extremely satisfying and extremely distressing, and I closed the book with mingled relief and regret.

The narrator of the story is none other than your friend Wilkie Collins, and occurs in the five years between the train accident at Staplehurst that you were involved in and your death. I’m sorry to bring up such painful subjects so early in this letter, but the contents of the book will likely make you even more uncomfortable. So if you’d like to toss this letter in the fireplace immediately, I’ll understand. Also, there be spoilers ahead, so if you’d like to read the book unencumbered by my questionable opinions, again, this would be a good time to go and visit the afterlife’s version of Facebook.

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Our absolutely unreliable narrator, Mr. Wilkie Collins

The book opens dramatically with Wilkie claiming that you’re a psychopath and possible murderer (I told you this would make you uncomfortable) and proceeds to describe in grisly detail the train disaster that he believes brought about this shift in your character. And as if the carnage of that event wasn’t vivid enough, we’re introduced to a mysterious and menacing figure named Drood, whose presence and motives are unclear but who is damned unsettling.

I gotta say, it’s one of the most instantly gripping, dramatic and intense opening couple of chapters I’ve read in recent memory.

There are a lot of excellent things going for the rest of the book. Simmons has clearly researched ALL THE THINGS pertaining to your final five years and creates a picture of you through Collins’ eyes that’s incredibly believable. Dinners at Gad’s Hill, your long walks, even your secret affair are all captured in loving detail. There’s a scene where Simmons describes your first dramatic reading of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, and I swear to god I felt like I was there in the audience. Simmons does a brilliant job of capturing your manic energy and your charm, as well as your self-importance and odd (and sort of cruel) sense of humour. This is a dark book, but Simmons makes you its glowing center. The best part of the book, I think, is the very real sense that I spent some time with you.

I also love the way Simmons creates intimate conversations between Collins and you. The two of you casually discuss the plots of both your works and continually criticize and compliment each other’s plot choices and styles with the same fervor that today’s readers discuss the relationships in Harry Potter. It gives your works a freshness an immediacy that warm the cockles of my heart. And I love how the setting, characters and plot points from The Mystery of Edwin Drood are woven into the narrative and suggest ways in which that book might have developed.

All this brilliance aside, there are things here that made the book difficult to get through. One of my pet peeves is when a book gets so bogged down in its research that it feels like you’re reading a textbook and not a work of fiction. And although the Dickens fan in me was reveling in the details of your daily life, there are a LOT of details here that, although accurate, aren’t incredibly pertinent to the plot. I appreciate being told that Kate’s husband is Wilkie’s brother, or that Collins calls his mistress’ daughter  Carrie even though her name is really Harriet – I don’t appreciate it so much the 15th time I read it. Although long, this book is not serialized, but the author clearly doesn’t trust his readers enough to remember the pertinent players.

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No, Mr. Simmons, I do not believe I shall require smelling salts, thank you.

And can we talk about the plot for a second? Because I would have been quite happy if this had remained some kind of continuation of The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. Instead, the über creepy opening chapters diffuse into a general and pervasive sense of darkness and unease punctuated with brief interludes of horror. And I use horror in the Victorian ‘this-is-rather-unusual-and-where-are-my-smelling-salts’ kind of way and not the 21st century ‘I-watched-Paranormal-Activity-and-slept-like-a-baby-immediately-afterwards’ kind of way. Wilkie Collins, bless his bespectacled heart, becomes the Salieri to your Mozart rather than the Watson to your Holmes, fueled by mesmerism, jealousy and enough opium and laudanum to fell a rhinocerous. So even the tension of the ‘scariest’ bits (being tied down naked to the clichéd heathen cult’s altar, for example) is dissipated by the nagging suspicion – a suspicion that gets stronger and stronger as the novel comes to a close – that none of what you’re reading is actually happening.

The result is that not only do I not trust any of the crazy-ass shite that Wilkie is telling me (which is lucky for you, because he says quite a lot of not nice things about you or your writing, and actively plots to kill you), but by the end of the novel I don’t really care, either. I’m just once again sad that you died so young.

I’m also left with the feeling that I want to give Wilkie a smack upside the head, a good psychologist, an appointment with a 21st century doctor, and into rehab, not necessarily in that order.

Thanks for helping to put my thoughts into words. And if you made it this far in the letter, Charlie, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Melissa

Edwin Drood, and the end of a journey

Dear Charlie,

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Well isn’t this just the saddest picture… :-(

It’s a funny thing about friends. Once you’ve made them, it’s very hard to unmake them.

I had no idea when this little project began, that I would grow so surprisingly fond of you, Charlie, in spite of the fact that you’re dead. Yes, you cheated on your wife, and maybe you weren’t the world’s greatest dad, and you were so racist as to make me want to go all Chuck Norris on you in a dark alley. But you were also intelligent, curious, observant, witty as all heck, and genuinely cared about calling attention to and righting the social evils of your time.

Having befriended you, Charlie, it’s hard to turn around now and say “alright, dead Victorian white dude, your year is up. Back into the ether you go.” You’re not going to be easy to get rid of. Not that I want to.

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Mystery and murder and opium. What a story to leave unfinished!

Maybe it would be easier if you’d actually finished Edwin Drood. As it is, however, there will always be a small portion of my brain spinning out possible endings. I really tried to remain aloof as I read, knowing that it was unfinished and not wanting to get too invested. But noooo, I had to go and get into the damn thing. Why’d you have to make John Jasper such an incredibly interesting character? I want to know what tales he’ll tell under the spell of his opium addiction. I want to know if he killed Edwin or if, like Bradley Headstone, he merely left his victim for dead. Or maybe he didn’t kill his nephew at all, or someone else did, or the whole thing is an elaborate set-up on your part (although, knowing you, I kind of doubt it). And then I start to wonder what parts the opium-selling woman and the slightly mysterious white-haired stranger would have played in the unfolding drama, and who else was waiting in the wings to add their story to the mix. I don’t even know if this was going to be a one- or two-volume story, so I don’t know how much was still to come!

Oh, Charlie, why’d you have to go and die??

aaaaMHclock1My (small) consolation is that whoever put this edition together, whatever their other faults, were clever enough to make sure that this final volume ended, not on the mother of all cliffhangers, but with Master Humphrey’s Clock, which throws us back to the 1840s, almost to the beginning of our time together. It’s definitely helping to soothe these frustrated thoughts. I’ve already been cheered by the most intricately framed tale I’ve ever read – the tragic love story of an Elizabethan apprentice as told in a story about two statues coming to life, as told by a deaf gentleman, whose manuscript Master Humphrey dug out of his old clock. Good lord, man!

But it’s nice to imagine walking into a cozy old room with a gently ticking clock, and sitting down next to old Master Humphrey to listen to a few good, old fashioned stories. I imagine that this is how you envisioned spending your old age, before all the popularity, public readings, train wrecks and infidelity made your hectic life what it became. I’m glad you got to experience it in fiction, even if you never had the chance to enjoy it in reality. Oh man, I’m getting all misty now.

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Yes, let’s just stay here, telling stories and drinking pineapple rum.

OK, on to lighter topics.

I must confess that I don’t have a plan. Stopping this blog dead seems a little harsh, especially since you now seem to pop up with great regularity on the interwebz and in reality, and I might like to write to you about things like your biographies, related books, or more ugly Pickwick pottery. And I want to post the infographic I’ve been working on as soon as it’s finished. So let’s not do anything rash and just see how this develops, shall we?

This is definitely NOT goodbye, my friend.

Affectionately,

Melissa