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In the late 1860’s, when mystery novels were still relatively new, Wilkie Collins challenged his friend Charles Dickens to turn his pen in that direction. Taking up the challenge, Dickens began his first and only mystery story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The novel was to be serialized in twelve monthly instalments by a magazine; published in Britian and shipped across the Atlantic to America. Unfortunately Dickens died halfway through the fascinating story. Oddly, it was the only time in his writing career that the writer had insisted on a contract stating that his heirs would be paid for the work should he die before it was finished.

Three years later, a young gadabout named Thomas James checked into a boarding house in Vermont, intent on avoiding anything resembling work. Shortly after, James announced to his landlady, a spiritualist, that he had been contacted by the spirit of Charles Dickens, who wished James to finish Edwin Drood. Eager to help out, the landlady offered him free room and board until the task was completed. Witnesses testified that James would go into long trances and write furiously as Dickens dictated the remainder of the novel. As word got out, James was accused of fraud and failure. However the book, attributed to ‘the spirit pen of Charles Dickens’ made an appearance in the bookstalls on Hallowe’en of 1873.

Controversy over the ‘genuine’ outcome of the story and the identity of the villain of Edwin Drood circulated among the early scholars, based on the working notes left behind by Dickens and the vignettes on the cover of the monthly instalments. The case was investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle insisted that Thomas James did not have a literary bone in his body and was incapable of creating the prose of Edwin Drood without assistance of some kind.

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