Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Last Dickens

What if Dickens has actually finished the last installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood after all? What would be the fate of the poor young Edwin Drood? If you have lived in England or America in 1870, these questions must have filled mind of people everywhere—Dickens’ readers, publishers, and perhaps all the literary world—following the death of the great author. For James R. Osgood in particular, it is about the life and death of Fields, Osgood & Co., the publishing company who holds the rights to publish Dickens’ books in America. Matthew Pearl crafted this historical event into a wonderful 19th century mystery novel.

After Dickens died, the last installment of Drood was shipped to Boston. It was the sixth and last installment from the most beloved author in England as well as in America at that time. Unfortunately, the junior clerk whose task was to procure the manuscript from the ship at the dock, had an accident and died. At first the police believed it’s an accident caused by opium overdose, but it was found later that he was ruthlessly killed. It’s double lost for Osgood, as he lost his reliable employee and the manuscript at the same time. And without Drood, Fields, Osgood & Co. might not survive another year…

But who did it? Was it their publishing rival, the Harpers, who have been using the Bookaneers (literary pirates) to be able to publish cheaper editions of top authors’ novels? Was it Dickens’ fanatic fan who wanted to collect the author’s last writing just for himself? Or was it related to the opium smuggling, which Pearl has used as his opening, just as Dickens used it in Drood? Throughout the book, these themes were intertwined alongside the interesting detailed stories of Dickens’ reading tours in America in 1870. 

Together with his pretty widowed bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, Osgood departed to England to trace Drood’s trail, that perhaps he could get Dickens’ unpublished piece on Drood which will be an added value to the original (unfinished) book his publishing company would like to print; before the Harpers and other pirate companies publish their cheaper issues, and kill Fields, Osgood & Co.’s business. But Osgood and Rebecca’s journey was not merely business or literary journey, it turned out to be very dangerous. Osgood was no longer a dedicated literary businessman; he must also act as a detective. Not only to save his company (and in certain point his own life!), Osgood must save the most precious literary legacy in the world, the genuine work of Charles Dickens—or its remnants….

The question is, did his enemies’ intentions were as noble as Osgood’s? Who was going to win? And the most important, perhaps, what would become of Drood? Or in other word, was there any possibility—even very small one—that Dickens did write the ending before he died? Or at least…did he ever mention his intention of Drood’s ending? These points perhaps, besides Dickens’ charisma which surpassed centuries, that made this book so engaging and exciting to follow, helped, of course, by Pearl’s thorough research and his ability to revive the history in its original style.

So far I have read three of Pearl’s historical novels about classics authors: Poe Shadow, The Dante Club and The Last Dickens. But this is the only book in which the author became one of the characters. I have never read any book in which Dickens is ‘alive’, and it makes The Last Dickens my new favorite historical fiction. Kudos to Matthew Pearl; and now I can hardly wait his latest literary-hisfic on Robert Louis Stevenson: The Last Bookaneer!

Five stars for The Last Dickens.

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I read Vintage Books paperback edition

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