The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

August 14, 2010

last dickens Plot summary (with spoilers): The Last Dickens is a work of historical fiction that seeks to recreate what might have happened in the immediate aftermath of Dickens’s death as publishers in America scrambled to get their hands on whatever was written of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the celebrated author’s final novel. Drood was to have been published in 12 installments for serials in England and America, but Dickens only penned six prior to his death.

At least, that’s what the general public thought. But some in the publishing world believe that Dickens might have written the novel backwards, meaning that the final chapters were still out there somewhere. James Osgood, an Boston book publisher, gets drawn into the mystery when Daniel Sand, a clerk at his firm, is murdered while out at the docks to retrieve some Drood chapters from London.

Osgood’s firm is in financial trouble and was counting on profits from Drood to bolster their bottom line. Without the manuscript, however, there’s a real chance the firm will fold. Therefore Osgood and Rebecca Sand, Daniel’s sister and fellow clerk at the firm, travel to London to try to track down the last Dickens. They soon become entangled with violent criminals seeking the same treasure, and must go escape from some harrowing situations before all is said and done.

There are two additional storylines in the book. One follows the adventures of Charles’s son Frank, who is a British officer stationed in India and is occupied with trying to track down opium thieves. The other storyline follows Charles Dickens on his farewell speaking tour in America in 1867, and details some of the troubles he and his extensive entourage had with fraudulent tax collectors and a female stalker.

Liked:

  • I really enjoy the historical fiction genre and since Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers, I guess I was predisposed to liking this book. I went into it not knowing anything about Dickens’s personal life, however, so I have no idea which parts were historical and which were fiction. Fortunately, that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.
  • I thought the main storyline — that of tracking down the ending to Drood in London — was very gripping and pretty exciting in some parts. The book would have rated 5 stars for me if Pearl had stuck to this track alone.
  • James Osgood was a decent protagonist. He wasn’t as complete a hero as I had hoped, but then again, why should he be? He was, after all, just a book publisher, so the fact that he couldn’t fight or defeat the baddies without help shouldn’t be held against him.
  • It was interesting to learn how much of a celebrity Charles Dickens was in his day. I knew he enjoyed massive popularity during his lifetime, but I had no idea that he was the object of such unabashed hero worship. People waiting in line for 10 hours or longer just to have a shot at getting tickets to his readings, mobs crowding around him everywhere he went, people grabbing at his clothes and tearing garments from his body… wow, that’s like a Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt reaction!

Disliked:

  • What was the point of the India/Frank Dickens storyline? I have to admit that I ended up skimming over those pages, so I don’t even know if/how that plot tied into the main event. Meh.
  • I could see from a mile away — even without the aid of a telescope, binocular, or similar instrument — that Rebecca Sand and James Osgood would fall in love. I knew it as soon as she was introduced as the murder victim’s sister. I hate predictable, totally contrived “romances” like that. Those two had zero chemistry in their interactions with each other, so I didn’t buy the love story at all.
  • I thought the actual “explanation” of what might have happened to the final pages of Drood was kind of a letdown. Most of them were lost by the fictional fire during the fictional confrontation between Osgood and Marcus Wakefield, which is of course the author’s creation. That part needed some work. The other explanation that some of the surviving pages were deliberately suppressed by the London publisher to save money that would have been owed to the family makes sense. I wonder if that part was based on historical facts.

Rating:

I was pleasantly surprised by Matthew Pearl’s Last Dickens. I read this immediately after reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so all the elements of Dickens’s novel were fresh in my mind — which immensely enhanced my ability to enjoy Pearl’s work. I think this is a must-read for any Dickens lover, and though the book is not without a few flaws, I nevertheless give it 4 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply