Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

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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