Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl – Book Review

The Last Dickens

James Osgood is a partner at Boston publishing company Fields, Osgood & Co., a firm recently honored with the unprecedented opportunity to publish famed author Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood in America.  It’s a cut-throat time to be in the publishing business (I don’t know, maybe it still is that) and they are the envy of other publishers, most notably its chief rival, Harper & Brothers headed by Major Harper and based in New York. Sketchy characters called Bookaneers lurk in the shadows at the Boston harbor, awaiting shipments of new book installments. They steal or otherwise glean information about the content, and then sell their info to rival publications, which then go on to produce pirated copies of the new books in direct competition with the publishers who legitimately own the copyright.

Daniel Sand is a conscientious young clerk at Fields, Osgood & Co., tasked with picking up the latest installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but when he is killed before he can bring it back to the office the coroner and local police write him off as an unreliable opium addict. Osgood, and his assistant Rebecca (Daniel’s sister) have more faith in the late clerk with Osgood suspecting that other circumstances might have played a role in Daniel’s death, especially when an attorney he questions about the details of Daniel death and the missing installment of Edwin Drood, is murdered.  The death of Dickens has made securing the final installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood an imperative for the survival of the publishing firm, so Osgood heads to England with a grieving Rebecca to see if any remaining installments of the mystery exist.  But they aren’t the only ones looking, and of course, danger ensues.

The Last Dickens is presented in six installments, paralleling not only the six installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that are available to be published, but also the remaining installments which Osgood is hoping that Dickens has written and stashed away somewhere.  So clever!  It definitely added to the suspense and the urgency of getting to the bottom of things.  With each passing installment I was looking for the next bit of the story and wondering how it was going to end. The writing is smart and the story is decidedly multi-faceted.  The plot advances on many levels as the burgeoning relationship between Osgood and Rebecca unfolds, more leads to the investigation are uncovered and examined, and the Dickens’ last book tour in America is explored.

What’s great about all of this mystery and suspense is that it is accompanied by rich period detail and is very well researched. Charles Dickens had an absolutely fascinating life; he was into mesmerism, had a scandalous break from his wife and a girlfriend, was an accomplished dramatic reader and was just…basically a celebrity in the way that we would term it today. Pearl explores his last American book tour in some depth and it is complete with admiring crowds and mysterious stalkers.  He also examines the plight of women making their way alone in the world without protection.  Rebecca is in the process of divorcing at a time when divorce is not socially acceptable, and when her brother Daniel dies she is completely left to her own devices in a society that is reluctant to support a woman living alone. Her experiences as one of the first female bookkeepers and single woman in the city were intriguing.

Last but not least there is the publishing industry.  I was totally engrossed in which publishing houses were around back in 1870, and how they have evolved into the publishing companies of today.  There were a lot of familiar names, and it was fun for me to see what the different publishing houses were and the rivalries that they were engaged in as compared to what they have become today.  If you’re nosy like I am about things like that, then you will that piece of the book so interesting.  The story was a lot of fun too, but I have to say that I was really engaged by the history.

In short (which you know that I don’t do if you’ve read my blog before- or if you’re just now reading this post for that matter-), this was an engaging mystery with a heavy dose of history, which I found delightful. My biggest quibble was probably the Frank Dickens in India piece.  It seemed to be minimally connected to the main story in a way that I found confusing (and right over my head) and I guess to be fair Frank didn’t interest me enough to attempt better understanding; thankfully his parts were very short. The other characters were interesting and I enjoyed the perspectives from which the novel was told (there were others besides Osgood). Seeing the characters make observations about each other allowed me to see them more completely. Of course, as I mentioned before, I loved the history.  It was such an enjoyable read.

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I was a little confused about the identity of the author, Matthew Pearl, when I started reading this book.  The cover is vaguely reminiscent of The Rule of Four, and for a while I was under the impression that Matthew Pearl had written it as well. I did recall that it too featured historical characters in a mysterious murder plot and that I had grown bored and hadn’t finished it.  I was willing to give this book a shot since Drood, by Dan Simmons had earlier in the year ignited my curiosity about the life of Charles Dickens and his final work.

Basically, thinking the authors of the The Rule of Four and The Last Dickens were the same; I was hoping that he had improved over the years and that this would be a better book.  Imagine my surprise on finding that I was so engrossed in and loving the book, and wondering how his writing had changed so drastically from what I remembered.  He had improved into a whole different author!  What a relief; now I can go back and read The Dante Club, which I have, but had been avoiding. Probably something to talk about in another post, but I think there is something to be said for books having such similar cover images and colors.  They could either be gaining or losing readers- and maybe I just need to pay better attention.  Thoughts?

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    1. I liked this one better. I think that Drood was brilliant in many ways and it definitely was an inspiration for me in wanting to read more about Dickens, Wilkie Collins, etc. The excessive length just made it way too much for me. It could have been trimmed down a bit or even more and been a much better book.

  1. It took me so long to realize what Linus’s Blanket means! I was totally obsessed with Peanuts growing up, and (I think this is right?) the first Peanuts comic ran on October 2, which is my birthday (and happens to be tomorrow). I always liked that fact, so I hope I’m not remembering it wrong.

    Wow, what a terrific write-up, I’m so glad not only that you enjoyed The Last Dickens but that you really *got* it — especially my six installment structure, which I only instituted midway in the writing process. If you read The Dante Club, you’ll see J. T. Fields and Osgood there, too, along with other connections to this one.

    I was laughing at the mistaken identity, because really, it is hard to keep authors from being invisible these days. Although I like being invisible usually.

    1. Wow! Happy Birthday! People often wonder if that is the Linus that I mean or if my actual name is Linus- which I guess could be kind of different and cool.

      What a nice idea you had half way through. I just kept imagining what it must have been like for people who loved Dickens’ writing so much, waiting each week for a new installment and to find out what happened next. How frustrating that there was no pay-off for them. Don’t know if I will ever be able to read it. I like that we get the whole book upfront now! Stieg Larson is selling like wildfire and if this were back in the old days, he might not have gotten past Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. I guess the closest that we come are tv cancellations, which is why I am hesitant to commit to a show in the first year.

  2. Nicole, I am LOL’ing at you and your little mix-up! How funny the way you put it, that the author evolved into an entirely different author. Too funny!

    Thanks so much for the time spent reading/reviewing this book! It is very much appreciated. I’m so glad you liked the book.
    .-= Lisamm´s last blog ..Kids and Cash =-.

    1. I’m so glad I like it too! You can see I had a few doubts. But it;s a great subject and so interesting. I read it in just a few days and it’s pretty dense type. I think you’re 4 for 4 with me Lisa. Good job!

  3. Your review is wonderful. I never heard of this book and I’m thrilled to discover it through your review. I enjoy mysteries but even more when there is something extra in this story like here where there is so much history, something I love to learn about.
    Thank you!
    .-= Amy´s last blog ..Thoughts and an Award! =-.

    1. Hi Amy! I see that you are also reading The Day The Falls Stood Still. If you like that one, you might like this as well. There is a lot of detail in both books, which I really liked.

  4. Love your informal reviewing style (it reminds me of me) and I chuckled with you all through this! I loved The Dante Club so this book is on my radar. I own his 2nd book, too but have yet to read it. I love how he weaves real people into stories – fun historical fiction! I have to admit, I’m intrigued and confused how this installment process works. Great review!

    1. I like the historical people in the book too, Care! I am excited to know that JT Osgood is in The Dante Club as well. It’ll be fun to see him in a different story knowing what I know of him.

  5. This sounds like an interesting novel with lots to offer. I may tell my mom about it as she is a retired English teacher and may be interested in the topic!

    1. I think she might really appreciate the history on the time period and Dickens life if she’s a teacher. The mystery story was kind of incidental to all of the history.

    1. I have been on a roll reading good historical fiction lately. I would definitely recommend it for the overview of the old school publishing industry.

  6. This one sounds really interesting. I’m not sure I would have picked it up at the bookstore to read under normal circumstances but having read your review, I wouldn’t hesitate. That’s the beauty of book blogs, you get to discover so many wonderful books!

    1. I have yet to read a book by Dickens in its entirety but I just find his life to be really fascinating from what I have read. I would like to read a biography but I know that would be an undertaking in and of itself.

    1. I think there will be details that appeal to you like the publishing stuff and the history. Since you’re a big mystery reader I will be curious to see your take on that piece of the book.

    1. I think Dickens is fascinating. Would love to read a bio of him but I am sure that a comprehensive one would be extremely long. There is just so much to cover.

  7. I’ve finally come back to read your review. I didn’t want to read it while I was still reading the book. I really loved this more than Drood by Dan Simmons, though I liked that one too, but for different reasons. However, I still haven’t finished it!

    As for the mix up of authors, that’s hilarious. I’ve had that happen before.
    .-= Serena (Savvy Verse & Wit)´s last blog ..Carta Marina by Ann Fisher-Wirth =-.

  8. Pingback: The Year That Was September 2009 | Linus's Blanket