The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

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The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The search for the ending to the Mystery of Edwin Drood gets caught up in a 'real-life' murder mystery leading our intrepid investigators through the opium dens and sewers of Victorian London, not to mention the underworld of American publishing. Tremendous fun.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099512752

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In Bengal, India on a June day in 1870 two young mounted policemen are hot on the trail of dacoit suspected of the recent daylight robbery of a train of bullock carts. The chests taken from the carts were full of Opium.

Meanwhile a few thousand miles away in Boston, USA, a young office boy is chased through the docks by a dark stranger of Hindoo appearance wielding a walking stick topped by a ferociously fanged idol.

The package the office boy is carrying has nothing, or so it would seem, to do with the dacoits in Bengal. On the contrary, it is nothing more nor less than the latest instalments of Charles Dickens' novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Why should this package be so vital as to attract the vehement pursuit by persons of such obviously nefarious character? That would have something to do with the fact that Mr Dickens has just died and the novel is unfinished, and much to do with the fact that the USA in the 1870s did not recognise international copyright laws. It was every publisher for himself.

Dickens had recognised Fields and Osgood as his sole American publisher, but that would be hard to enforce following the author's death, and other publishing houses will stop at nothing to get the 'final' instalments of the unfinished novel.

It gives nothing away more than you will find on the blurb to say that Daniel does not make it back to Fields and Osgood's publishing house with his prize. Of course, the loss of the manuscript is in itself merely a delay – a further copy can soon be obtained from England – though there is the risk of pirate publishers stealing a march in the meantime. Much worse is Daniel's demise, the reasons behind it and the accusations laid against him by the officers of the law brought in to investigate.

Thus the Osgood half of the Fields and Osgood partnership, with Daniel's doughty sister, a book-keeper with the firm, as trusty sidekick, is launched on an investigation not only to find out what happened to Daniel, but also to seek whatever clues can be found to solve the Mystery of Edwin Drood – how, exactly, did Dickens intend to resolve the book?

And why are the events in India significant to the whole story?

To understand some of the relationships and the atmosphere of any mystery there has to be a back story. This is no exception. In this case the flashbacks take us only two and half years back, to November 1867 and Dickens' reading tour of the States.

We follow the three timelines intermittently: the opium trade in India, Dickens' tour of America in 1867 and Osgood's journey across the world to seek an answer to Edwin Drood. In true traditional murder mystery fashion, the links will become clear in the fullness of time, after the requisite number of red herrings have been swept aside.

The Last Dickens is described as an intricate, fast-paced and stylish literary thriller. 'Thriller' is overstating the case, but it is intricate. As for pace, it moves ahead with suitable alacrity rather than careering breathlessly onwards. Stylish? Yes, in the sense that Conan Doyle and Christie and Dickens himself were stylish. It is a worthy addition to the murder mystery canon of that pre- and inter-war ilk before everyday life became just too violent and blood-thirsty. It is of the puzzle murder genre, where almost the whole point is for the reader to get there before the author does. It sits comfortably in the era of hansom cabs, and new-fangled telegraphy, and taking days to cross the Atlantic.

The language is of the time and the scenes are rich with period detail, with lots of lovely insights into, for example, the world of publishing, the treasures of the sewer hunters, the Massachusetts laws on divorce, and the special relationship between the US and England – complicated even then by the Irish question.

Modern echoes can be heard in the debates around the use of opium, the infringements of intellectual property rights and how hard it is to be a celebrity. Plus ça change.

If the characters never quite fully materialise as real people rather than actors in the play, that doesn't matter because the play's the thing. It is all about the plot.

For Dickens fans the details of the tour will be of interest, as the author's historical note confirms that these are based on true events and recorded conversations.

As for Drood – an utterly feasible, totally improbable, proposition is put forward and not quite discounted. But who will ever know what the Chief intended? Unless there really is a lost manuscript out there somewhere.

The Last Dickens isn't great literature, but it is great fun. Suspend disbelief: simply read and enjoy.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more Victorian crime try The Worms of Euston Square by William Sutton.

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


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


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