Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

lastd Not only is this a satisfying mystery, it’s also a look at the publishing world of the nineteenth century, which was very different than today’s. Mainly in that there was no international copyright laws, which sounds dull, but had great impact on authors. It mean that when an author’s work came to the US, it could be changed or stolen and the profits lost to the author. There was a black market in manuscripts stolen from the ships when they arrived in port, by people called “Bookateers”, who would then sell the pages to unscrupulous publishers. These thieves would also attend author readings, transcribing the author’s words, which were then made into condensed works published without permission from the writer.
That piracy is what influences the central plot of this multi-strand novel. A clerk from Boston publisher Fields, Osgood & Co. is killed after being sent to pick up Dickens’s last manuscript at the docks. But when his body is found, there are no papers on him. Was his death an accident or murder? A partner in the firm, James Osgood, along with his bookkeeper, Rebecca, the slain clerk’s sister, goes to England to find the rest of the unfinished manuscript(…Edwin Drood)and solve the mystery. A unnecessary second story concerns Frank Dickens, the author’s son, who is serving with the British army in India. There are also flashbacks to Charles Dickens’s life, most notably his last speaking tour of America, where he was subject to Beatle-esque popularity.
The novel has an old-fashioned flavor, not only because it’s set in 1870, but also the pacing, events and reactions to them. It’s third in a series featuring literary figures, (which I’ve not read, but plan to), but adequately stands alone. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments and the characters are likable. Anyone interested in the Victorian era should look for these atmospheric mysteries full of books, quills and carriages.

Random House 2009 386 pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-6656-8

4 comments on “The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

  1. Lisa
    June 2, 2009

    Why did you feel that the second story was unnecessary? Was it totally separate from the main narrative?

    “Bookateers”? Love that.

    Sounds like an excellent novel.

  2. Moira
    June 2, 2009

    It does sound as if the second storyline was a bit surplus to requirements. Did it tie in with the main narrative at all?

    I didn’t realize that they were still up to the old trick of scribbling down abridged versions of novels and plays in the 19th Century. Shakespeare was a particular victim of that. The pirates used to attend his plays, and write down as much as they could, then transcribe the result, embroidering as they went. The result was often hilarious – coming out sounding like a bad schoolboy rendition. I read a pirated version of Hamlet once — the ‘to be or not to be’ speech was eye-wateringly funny. Does make you wonder where they stashed the quill and the ink-pot though, it being before the days of ballpoints.

  3. Jackie
    June 2, 2009

    The second storyline was only remotely connected to the main thread. The impression was that it was only there because it featured Dickens’s son, Frank, who naturally, had some father/son issues.

  4. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Good Night, Mr. Holmes, The Last Dickens « The Literary Omnivore

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2009 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: literary, fiction: mystery and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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