The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

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The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A tale combining the latter tropical island life of Robert Louis Stevenson with the antics of Victorian literary pirates who trade on gaps in the law and the gullibility of others. It contains fascinating insights for those who don't mind a meander from the story's central path in order to take in a side bar vignette or two.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Harvill Secker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846556197

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Bookaneer Fergins makes a decent living in 19th century London. However his business acquaintance Davenport has a plan to aid his prosperity. Hot literary property Robert Louis Stevenson is dying on Upolo, a Samoan island, having just written his final potential masterpiece. Therefore all Davenport has to do is to steal it, bringing it back to publishing glory and self-aggrandisement. The only problems are that the enabling legal loophole is about to close and he's not the only one with his eye on that particular prize. And Fergins? He's going too, whether he wants to or not.

American author Matthew Pearl has not only written novels, he's also lectured in writing at such esteemed establishments as Harvard. His novels are definitely not high fallutin' though, be they a story about students manipulating matter in the historical crime world of The Technologists or the Victorian world of the author of Edwin Drood in The Last Dickens.

For The Last Bookaneer (Matthew's seventh novel) he returns to the Victorians and England once again before transporting us to the US, to Samoa and then back to the US and...

Indeed we travel about a fair bit in geography and back and forth in Fergins' life and times as he tells his young friend Clover of the former's adventures with the shady Davenport. Also it takes the author a little while to warm up and then, once he does, there is a certain amount of meandering to and from the central story. The meanderings are all valid vignettes but at times I found the repeated distraction a little frustrating.

One such side bar story relates how the fiendishly focussed Davenport met his amour, the equally resourceful Kitten – the same Kitten we previously encountered in The Last Dickens. The cross over is deftly handled, as is the title.

So what's a Bookaneer? Good question! The word has been invented by the author but the idea of such an underworld profession arose from something he read about the doings of a book dealer from the era. In our modern world where film and music piracy is gathering magnitude we can understand a time when, due to a loophole in copyright law, money could be made from books by the unscrupulous. 'Bookaneer' is therefore a great description for a very dubious way to earn a crust. Having said that, on the other side of the story's coin, Matthew's Robert Louis Stevenson isn't someone we'd want to take home to mother either!

Ravaged by the TB that eventually kills him, RSL lives on the island as self-styled chief, even down to having a native name. The hints – and blatant – moments of racism and imperialism are there to tempt our 21st century sensibilities into teetering towards outrage. Indeed, Fergins isn't completely comfortable with what he finds and he's a man of his time so we shouldn’t feel judgemental.

Matthew certainly evokes plenty of local colour, for instance the ceremony linked with the curious 'Ava. However on this island paradise Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson (Fanny) just wants to come home. When the story plays out before us, darkening as it progresses, we can understand why.

The author changes our expectations and perceptions right up till the end as the twists begin to slot in. For me the story could have been a little more focused but there are some excellent set pieces, factoids and flashes of delicious Victorian connivance, making the time spent in its company worth it.

(I'd like to thank Harvill Secker for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, we recommend the aforementioned The Technologists and The Last Dickens. If you're already a fan or enjoy reading historical crime that involves Robert Louis Stevenson (not as rare a subject as you'd think!), we also heartily suggest Nor Will He Sleep by David Ashton.

Buy The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl at Amazon.com.


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