Dickens was always dark. The perception of his novels as scrubbed-up Victorian propaganda is as phony as the hypocritical upper classes he exposes. The London his characters inhabit is dirty, dangerous, filled with drunks and beggars and murderers, twisted secrets, the living side-by-side with the damned. It's the London of freaks, the insane, the sick, the untouchable. It's a London where men row up the Thames before dawn, towing junk, treasure, or dead bodies behind them.
That image of an unidentified body bobbing in the muddy water behind a rowboat marks the beginning of Dickens' darkest and last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend. It's his most complex and realistic, the culmination of a master coming into the full spectrum of his powers. We can mourn the missing last half of Edwin Drood or talk about the brilliance of Great Expectations and Bleak House, but Our Mutual Friend is the perfect capstone of an illustrious career.
If you've read much Dickens it's easy to write off the satire as "social commentary," an old crank's revilement of injustice. And while he had hobby horses—some he rode to splinters—each of Dickens' works focuses on a specific theme. Nicholas Nickleby points fingers at the deplorable school system; Hard Times reveals the horror of factory life and work; David Copperfield explores the exploitation of poor children. Our Mutual Friend looks directly at Money, and if you don't think money is the root of all kinds of evil, you will by the time you're finished with this novel.
When old Mr. Harmon dies and leaves a fortune to his son John, the estranged young man travels from somewhere vaguely African to retrieve the estate. Then he disappears, and all Hell (or all London, in this case) breaks loose. A body is found, and identified as John Harmon; the man who finds it (Gaffer Hexam, one of the best villains ever) is accused of murder; Bella Wilfer, John's intended, resists the advances of an eligible young man because she will only marry for money; the aptly named Simon Wegg plots blackmail, and on and on in a great Dickensian wheel of duplicity, crime, greed and black comedy.
One of the best characters is the irresponsible lawyer Eugene Wrayburn. He's hilarious—no one can forget his fumigation of a drunk bum with a shovel of coals from the fireplace. He's also human—Wrayburn makes a real moral journey from dissolution to discovery, all along able to appear both good and bad, wise and foolish. We can truly understand him because he's so much like us, so black and white together, so interminably gray.
Dickens was a great novelist, and Our Mutual Friend may be his best novel. Unlike some novels, you don't need to be a theorist to enjoy the flawless plot structure, the brilliant characterization, the incisive commentary on the human condition, the hysterical comedy, or the elegant prose. Whether you read any more Dickens or not, this is one of the few works of fiction you absolutely have to read before you die.