The Last Dickens
Cover image and synopsis from Goodreads:
In his most enthralling novel yet, the critically acclaimed author Matthew Pearl reopens one of literary history’s greatest mysteries. The Last Dickens is a tale filled with the dazzling twists and turns, the unerring period details, and the meticulous research that thrilled readers of the bestsellers The Dante Cluband The Poe Shadow.
Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s untimely death reaches the office of his struggling American publisher, Fields & Osgood, partner James Osgood sends his trusted clerk Daniel Sand to await the arrival of Dickens’s unfinished novel. But when Daniel’s body is discovered by the docks and the manuscript is nowhere to be found, Osgood must embark on a transatlantic quest to unearth the novel that he hopes will save his venerable business and reveal Daniel’s killer.
Danger and intrigue abound on the journey to England, for which Osgood has chosen Rebecca Sand, Daniel’s older sister, to assist him. As they attempt to uncover Dickens’s final mystery, Osgood and Rebecca find themselves racing the clock through a dangerous web of literary lions and drug dealers, sadistic thugs and blue bloods, and competing members of Dickens’s inner circle. They soon realize that understanding Dickens’s lost ending is a matter of life and death, and the hidden key to stopping a murderous mastermind.
I have read Matthew Pearl’s other novels, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, and loved them, so I had high hopes for this one. I was not disappointed!
I loved this book! The writing was so rich and detailed. At times I had to remind myself that I was reading a modern book, not something written in 1870, since the author does such a wonderful job of describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the various settings.
Everyone – fans, rival publishers, thugs – is desperate to get their hands on the final half of Charles Dickens’ final novel. Part of the problem facing the characters is that it may not even exist. I loved the idea of a mystery novel about a mystery novel! The mix of reality and fiction is so well done – Dickens himself appears as a character, and James Osgood was a real publisher in 1870. This is what Pearl does so well: he has thoroughly researched the setting and the real lives of his characters, and blends fact with fiction so convincingly that I was wondering how much of his tale of Dickens’ last book was true (I won’t spoil it for you here!).
I loved the main characters, James Osgood, and his bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand. Rebecca was a young, modern woman struggling with 19th century moral conventions and her desire to make her own decisions about her own life. She was not a damsel in distress; she was an intelligent, strong character.
Their budding romance was a nice side-story, and given the time period, it was very tame! I love reading a book set in a different time period and seeing how different things were.
I also loved the characters called The Bookaneers: a group of thugs for hire, described by Pearl as literary pirates, who prowl the docks of Boston, waiting for manuscripts to arrive, who may or may not be working for a rival publisher of Osgood’s. They demonstrate how cutthroat the publishing industry was at that time, and Pearl does a good job of weaving the history of the industry and its problems into the plot.
For example, because there was no international copyright at that time, American authors could reprint works by foreign authors, such as Dickens, without having to pay for it. Publishers all over were desperate to be the first to find and publish his final pages and in Pearl’s novel, they were going to any lengths they could to do so, including hiring the ruthless Bookaneers (Pearl has mentioned that he hopes to write a separate book about the Bookaneers, and I would love to read it).
I have been reading a lot of young adult fiction lately and this book was an excellent change of pace. I really recommend that you pick up all of Pearl’s novels, particularly this one.