In 1869, when he began what was to be his last novel, Charles Dickens had no way of knowing just how apt its title would come to be. For The Mystery of Edwin Drood, called that after no little deliberation, was never completed: Dickens was working to get it out when he suffered a stroke and died the very next day. Only half of the 12 proposed monthly installments were then on paper; the remaining six, alas, remained in the fertile brain of their creator and were entombed with him in Westminister Abbey.

Thus was one of the curiosities of literature established, a mystery to this day. The puzzle, with its eternally elusive solution, has for over a century held the imagination of readers. "This great stump of a novel," as Edward Blishen refers to it, has throughout the decades gathered about its scores of argumentative fans (known variously as "Droo-ids," "Droodians" or "Droodists") who form cliques and occasional cross-alliances according to the theory they espouse to settle the story's outcome.

G.K. Chesterton ("insoluble"), George Gissing ("a paltry mystery"), George Bernard Shaw (constructed by a man "already three-quarters dead") and Longfellow ("one of his most beautiful works if not the most beautiful of all") are among the distinguished men of letters who have pronouned their verdict on Edwin Drood. So also have Andrew Lang and J.B.Priestly, as well as two Wilsons, Edmund and Angus. Their was even a mock trial staged in London in 1913, with Chesterton and Shaw participating, to determine the guilt or innocence of Edwin Drood's probable murderer.

The crux of the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood is whether that amiable young man, Edwin Drodd, was ever murdered at all. By the beginning of Dicken's Chapter XV he has certainly disappeared, but there is simply no way to ascertain what has happened to him. Close on the heels of this inconvenient lack of data are other, almost equally vexing questions: If Edwin has been slain, was the villain his guardian, the choirmaster John Jasper, who leads two lives, one as a respected community member and another as a frequenter of opium dens? And if Edwin is dead, yet if Jasper is not the assassin, then who is?

Clues abound, but there is always the chance that they are red herrings. Dickens, ever extravagant with the raw material of his richly textured, warmly glittering fictions, had no reason to make the book's denouement accessible midway. On the contrary, he was serving up to his public what they had come to expect in the way of social portraiture, sentimentally, humor and, above all, suspense.

Suspense, in this case, means misdirection of attention, as well as cliff-hanging moments, all to be measured out in 11 doses and blended together in a 12th. Because of the point where Dickens' Edwin Drood comes to an abrupt halt, there is a secondary item of suspense that has less to do with the mayhem and more to do with potential misdirection. Droodists will know that I am referring to the identiy of Dick Datchery, "a white-haired personage, with black eyebrows" who appears on the scene three chapters after Edwin has vanished.

Most close readers of the text believe that Datchery is a previously introduced character -- perhaps even Edwin himself -- returned to the scene in disguise, either in the role of sleuth or avenger. Droodists have a number of candidates for who Datchery might really be: some say he is Bazzard the legal clerk, others that he is Helena Landless (twin sister of the man whom Jasper seeks to convict of the "crime") in an elaborate male impersonation. Still others speculate that Datchery may be a professional investigator hired by the lawyer Grewgious, guardian to Edwin's former betrothed, Rosa.

Leon Garfield, the British author of many highly acclaimed historical novels for both children and adults, now joins a long line of "Drood- completers" (or "continuators"), taking up the pen where Dickens left off. He tackles the question of Datchery practically right away and chooses the last of the above-mentioned possibilities, i.e., revealing Datchery to be a failed actor turned detective. Although I myself lean toward that Bazzard school in this matter and think that Garfield lays it on a bit thick, regarding Datchery's personality and idiosyncracies, Garfield makes the transition so smoothly that his attempts at Dickensian "excess" deserve a bit of tolerance.

For it must be said that Garfield creates a fine first impression as he delivers those all-important words which carry us from the world of Dickens' Edwin Drood to Garfield's own:

"By what mysterious means Cloisterham has come by its population of hideous small boys is a matter that must always occupy the reflective mind. No family owns them; no one can remember their ever having been born. No one can recall a time when Cloisterham was ever without them; they have always been there, have always been hideous, have always been small."

But this tone, ironical and blithe and avuncular all at once, with its panoramic view that promises a speedy focus on a particular spot in the landscape, soon gives way to something not quite so Dickens-like. But how could it not?

If, as Angus Wilson has suggested, one should study only what is here, that the interest in Dickens' half-novel lies in what he wrote and not what he didn't, then the work of the completer necessitates a new approach, because now there is something where there was nothing. What we have is no longer Dickens, not even an ordinary hybrid, but more a friendly monster -- not quite literature, not quite a game, but a little of both plus affectionate homage -- whose various parts match for show but not for utility.

Yet, for those most likely to care to read it, a Garfield Edwin Drood, or anyone else's is always going to be approached with a preconceived set of notions of what should turn out how. Garfield performs in the manner of Dickens tolerably well, striking enough false notes, however, to remind the reader with what sort of monster he is consorting. But for readers familiar with Edwin Drood, Garfield's style ultimately is not what's at issue; rather, it's how close his plot revelations approach each person's own projected ones.

To play at Edwin Drood -- it is a literary sport, is it not? -- in public takes a certain courage. This is because, even though a lot of thought and energy are expended, a Drood- completer's work cannot be judged fairly on its own merits, especially (and this is somewhat paradoxical) by those who already best understand the rules.

There is plenty of evidence, from Dickens' conversations with those around him, that the wickedness of John Jasper was part of the scheme of things. This is the path Garfield takes: Edwin is dead and Jasper has done the deed. However, Dickens also conveyed to a close friend that the essential plot idea of The Mystery of Edwin Drood was "incommunicable." eIn addition, his co-editor at Al the Year Around, where Edwin Drood was appearing, tells us that in the midst of publishing it Dickens began to alter "the plot and found himself hopelessly entangled as in a maze."

The reader new to Edwin Drood will not be well served by Garfield's effort, despite the talent that it displays. But that is not Garfield,'s fault. It is not so much that he cannot exactly duplicate Dickens' flavor nor that he could not possibly know Dickens' intentions for Edwin, Jasper, Rosa, and the rest.