The Disappearance of John Ackland
Another story to appear in Dickens’s All the Year Round in the year preceding Drood was this five-part tale by Robert Bulwer Lytton (son of Edward, the successful author and Dickens’s friend). In here we see a number of plot points that seem to parallel Dickens’s text – John Ackland is murdered by a man who everyone presumes to be on friendly terms with him. The murderer hides the body in an ice house and creates the illusion that he is alive and has moved away by forging letters. His scheme comes undone when his daughter visits the jewellers with a watch – a watch which the jeweller immediately recognises as belonging to John Ackland, which then prompts further investigation and the discovery of the body. It should be noted that there is a great deal about Lytton’s tale which is not like Dickens’s; the story takes place in America, the victim has lent money to the murderer who kills therefore for reasons of finance, not love, and the murderer himself is not a popular man, nor does everyone presume him to be innocent.
However, the particularly intriguing aspect of The Disappearance of John Ackland in relation to The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Dickens’s intervention in what was originally supposed to be a much longer story. Dickens told Lytton that the story would have to be wrapped up as he had just realised the story was not original and had been done before. To date, no scholar has identified what story Dickens is referring to which Ackland might be copying. Therefore, it has been speculated, that Dickens was not referring to a story that had been written, but rather one which was going to be written – his own story planned for publication the following year. Certainly the dates would agree with Forster’s recollection: Ackland’s story was published from 18 September to 16 October 1869, and Forster suggests Dickens first had his idea of a young couple in an arranged marriage in July, which then developed into his “very curios and new idea” by 6 August. But – if we suppose the theory to be true, this would suggest, controversially, that Dickens was either plagiarising another author, or wilfully suppressing their tale for his own advantage, in which case the true crime of Edwin Drood may have more to do with is composition than its plot (you can read all five parts of Bulwer Lytton’s story here http://www.djo.org.uk/indexes/authors/edward-robert-bulwer-lytton.html).