When I read Matthew Pearl's first book, The Dante Club, I was struck by two things. One, the man knew how to craft a great, literary thriller. Two, it takes some serious intestinal fortitude to be a writer and turn other infinitely more famous writers into characters. With this his third novel, Pearl has returned to those strengths in an exciting, educated story.
There are several plot strands here, each interesting in their own right, which are woven around The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Charles Dickens' unfinished final novel. When Dickens died on June 9, 1870, he had just finished the sixth serialized installment of Drood, leaving no indication of how the story was going to end. The shock of his sudden passing was heartrending enough to an adoring public, but then to only have half a book, in which the main character may or may not be dead, was utterly tragic. Pearl's novel primarily follows James R. Osgood, one of Dickens' American publishers, and his desperate search for clues to the intended fate of Edwin Drood.
One of the most unexpected and interesting aspects of the story is the picture of the 19th century publishing industry. There are publishers everywhere in this book. Fields & Osgood, Dickens' representative in the States, are the good guys. An evolution of the seminal Ticknor & Fields, the Boston-based company find themselves in a precarious position after the writer's death. In the 1870s, the U.S. did not recognize international copyright law and, as such, anyone could print copies of pretty much whatever they wanted. With the impending public release of Drood's sixth installment, the predatory Harper Brothers, out of New York, are threatening to publish an unauthorized (and cheaper) edition. Revenue loss like that would cripple Fields & Osgood, who are carrying a stable of important but commercially unsuccessful authors (Longfellow, Emerson, and the like). Meanwhile, Dickens' London publisher, Chapman & Hall, are sympathetic, but have no real interest in the squabbles of their colonial colleagues. This leaves Osgood no choice but to find some clue to the ending — if not the ending itself — to make his edition the one people want to read and, more importantly, buy.
Accompanying Osgood is one Rebecca Sand, a beautiful divorcee who is both the love interest and a representative of social change. A bookkeeper for Fields & Osgood, Rebecca is among a class of women moving into the workplace. She's not quite a suffragist, but more like a precursor or inspiration. In fact the word "suffrage" never comes up in the book; the country is still working through the aftereffects of the Civil War. Nevertheless, there is an interesting tension in Rebecca's position. Her attraction to Osgood is complicated by the terms of her divorce. By court ruling, she cannot be romantically involved with another man for two years or her divorce is nullified and she will be forced to return to her abusive husband. While I'm no historian, this is just stupid and misogynistic enough to have the ring of truth. This caveat not only throws a wrench in their relationship, but it also has the effect of keeping the romance from usurping the plot. Interestingly, neither of these things bring her into the story. Instead it is the death of her brother, which opens the book, that initiates her involvement. The complications with which Pearl imbues her make her that much more interesting, and while she may be a secondary character, she is in many ways more rounded than Osgood.
While the mystery-hunting publisher is certainly likable, he's also your basic straight man. He's a good guy through and through, who is nothing if not honorable in his adventures. In contrast, the character of Charles Dickens is infinitely more conflicted and fascinating. Oh yes, you heard right, Pearl has the audacity to climb inside the head of the 19th century's greatest novelist and make him walk and talk. It was absolutely the right decision.
While I enjoyed Pearl's second book, The Poe Shadow, it is missing a key element: Edgar Allan Poe. The Dante Club is a great book not just because of the mystery, but because it is solved by a group of literary lions: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields, the publisher who also features in The Last Dickens. Poe was nowhere to be found in the Shadow, and I think the book suffered as a result. In this case, however, Dickens has a very real role to play, and Pearl works him in through a series of flashbacks to the author's second and final reading tour of America. As a character, old Boz is dynamic, bizarre, and likable, although the portrait painted falls a good ways short of hero worship. Significantly, Pearl is not just using this as a gimmick, but rather masterfully ties in Dickens' character with the posthumous enigma he leaves behind.
The only place where I felt that Pearl left a thread dangling was in the occasional scenes of Frank Dickens, one of Charles' sons and a Superintendent in the British police force in India. Frank is investigating an opium theft which does eventually link back to the Drood mystery, but is tangential at best. Opium surfaces time and again in the novel, which is appropriate since The Mystery of Edwin Drood begins with a man leaving a London opium den. The India chapters in The Last Dickens discuss the rampant distribution of the drug and the British Empire's reprehensible involvement, but do little to add to the plot. Frank's non-existent relationship with his father further distances this storyline from the rest of the book. I have to wonder whether this is the result of research Pearl found too interesting to leave out, or if something was left on the editing room floor which would have firmed up the connection.
All in all, while less successful than The Dante Club, The Last Dickens is still a great mystery novel which adds a touch of erudition to summer beach reading. Pearl's effortless inclusion of literary history leaves you feeling a bit like you actually read a Dickens novel, instead of a modern thriller.