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.