The Last Dickens
By Matthew Pearl. Random House; 400 pgs., $25.
A few years ago, I wrote an e-mail to “The Dante Club” and “The Poe Shadow” author Matthew Pearl. The rising literary prodigy, who graduated from both Harvard and Yale, told me he was in London doing research for his next book. Time passed.
Then, on a recent blustery day, I ducked into the Highlands Carmichael’s. There, on the shelf: “The Last Dickens” by Matthew Pearl. Now that I have finished the historical fiction thriller, I feel like I’ve just returned from time travel to the world Dickens experienced as he wrote “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol.”
With “The Last Dickens,” Pearl has secured himself at the cornerstone of the historical fiction genre, which shuttles readers back to a 19th-century world inhabited by such literary trailblazers as Longfellow and Poe, and now Dickens himself. It was while conducting research for “Poe Shadow” that Pearl discovered Poe and Dickens had met, and it was after a discussion of Poe’s technique that Dickens decided to give mystery a try. The result created the greatest mystery of all when Dickens died at age 58, the book half finished.
In 1870, American audiences were waiting to see what the author of “Great Expectations” would deliver next. Dickens had been treated like a celebrity on his New England book tour years before. His latest book, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” was being published in 12 magazine installments. Shockingly, the fourth through sixth editions were en route to a Boston port when Dickens laid down his quill and collapsed.
In the rough and tumble years after the Civil War, ruthlessly competitive publishers angled to be the first to get their hands on hot literary works produced in Europe — straight profit with no obligations to the author. Publishers hired unscrupulous scouts Pearl called “bookaneers” to intercept manuscripts at the port. In Pearl’s book, the installments fell into dirty hands.
In the unfinished mystery, swashbuckling Edwin Drood, betrothed to the chaste orphan Rosa, disappears, and his opium-addicted uncle is suspected. Was Drood dead? Pearl’s fictionalized version of young publisher James R. Osgood is as relentless to secure the Shanghaied editions as he is to determine whether Dickens left clues as to how the mystery would resolve. This leads the nimble but naïve Osgood on an odyssey to London, accompanied by the beautiful bookkeeper Rebecca Sand, a craftily formed model of caged passion and savvy, if not Industrial Age sexual repression.
Osgood and Sand are pursued through London fog by a hardened and shadowy villain named Ironhead Herman. Their endeavors take them into the sulfurous world of opium dens, similar to the one Dickens actually explored for his own research. This, plus the fact that Dickens spent part of his teen years in a debtor’s poorhouse, helps reveal the secret to his writing’s authenticity.
Ultimately, the question arises: Who is more dogged — the fictionalized Osgood and the resourceful heroine Sand, or Pearl himself, who spent months in library archives in London, Boston and Harvard excavating meaty details? Pearl lets us see into the small garden chalet where Dickens wrote.
This is not a book for the reader entranced by a sprawled corpse in the first chapter, as in Dan Brown’s groundbreaking book “The Da Vinci Code,” with its cliffhanger chapter endings that seduce the beguiled reader to the next page. Pearl’s work requires patience to wade through more than 350 pages before a torrent of twists ultimately converge into a dramatic but plausible finale. Perhaps Conan Doyle’s Baker Street sleuth Sherlock Holmes could have connected the dots before the climax; I couldn’t.
Will Pearl’s fourth book take us into the murky and mischievous world of Doyle, who was just 21 when Dickens died? I hope so. Meanwhile, Pearl’s following awaits with great expectations. To paraphrase orphan Oliver Twist: Please sir, may we have some more?