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The Last Dickens

The Last Dickens

3.4 97
by Matthew Pearl

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Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s sudden death reaches his struggling American publisher, James Osgood sends his trusted clerk, Daniel Sand, to await the arrival of Dickens’s unfinished final manuscript. But Daniel never returns, and when his body is discovered by the docks, Osgood must embark on a quest to find the missing end to the novel and


Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s sudden death reaches his struggling American publisher, James Osgood sends his trusted clerk, Daniel Sand, to await the arrival of Dickens’s unfinished final manuscript. But Daniel never returns, and when his body is discovered by the docks, Osgood must embark on a quest to find the missing end to the novel and unmask the killer. With Daniel’s sister Rebecca at his side, Osgood races the clock through a dangerous web of opium dens, sadistic thugs, and literary lions to solve a genius’s last mystery and save his own–and Rebecca’s–lives.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A rousing yarn of opium, book pirating, murder most foul, man-on-man biting and other shenanigans—and that's just for starters.[The Last Dickens is] a pleasing whodunit that resolves nicely, bookending Dan Simmons's novel Drood (2009) as an imaginative exercise in what might be called alternative literary history.—Kirkus

"Just what do the seemingly disparate parts of the story have to do with one another? What the publisher becomes embroiled in, in London, is far more complicated than simply manuscript detection. A whole world of life-and-death nefariousness awaits both him and the reader, who will be well rewarded."—Booklist

“Well executed and tightly controlled…extremely clever.”—Los Angeles Times

“Pearl’s plot is ambitious and satisfying, involving a murder and a missing manuscript, the opium trade, the emerging publishing business In New York and Boston, and the predicament of single, divorced women in America in the 19th century. Fans of Dickens will appreciate Pearl’s literary allusions and his thoroughly researched characterizations…”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Strongly recommended… Pearl enriches his story through an in-depth knowledge of Dickens’s career and literary works.”—Library Journal

From the Hardcover edition.

The author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow has fashioned another sleight-of-hand historical mystery that keeps us guessing from almost the first page. Again, master prestidigitator Matthew Pearl sets up with a simple double conundrum: In the jungles of India, a policeman shouts out the name of Charles Dickens while chasing a felon, while halfway around the world, a Boston publishing house clerk loses his life and the advance installment of Dickens's never-finished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Last Dickens casts its spells between these polar events, conspiring to make us both careful textual detectives and fearless street sleuths. A challenging intellectual entertainment.
Publishers Weekly

Bestseller Pearl (The Poe Shadow) delivers a period thriller that has the misfortune to fall short of the high standard set by Dan Simmons's Drood(Reviews, Nov. 24), which also centers on Charles Dickens's final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. After the author dies in 1870, a series of suspicious deaths leads Dickens's U.S. publisher, James Osgood, to suspect they may be connected with the solution to the novel's puzzle. Accompanied by attractive bookkeeper Rebecca Sand, the sister of one of the victims, Osgood travels from Boston to England to seek clues to Drood's missing conclusion. The action shifts to India, where Charles's son Francis is a superintendent of the Bengal Mounted Police, and back in time, to the novelist's last American tour in 1867. Some awkward prose distracts ("There were several other grim faces at dinner that, like some imperceptible force, spread a dark cloud over the levity"), while the ending may strike some readers as a cop-out. (Mar.)

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Library Journal

Pearl's third historical novel (after The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow) explores the circumstances surrounding Charles Dickens's unfinished last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Boston publisher James Osgood eagerly awaits the final installments of Drood after hearing of Dickens's sudden death. Unfortunately, Osgood's trusted messenger, Daniel, is killed before he can deliver the manuscript to the publishing house, and the manuscript disappears. Could Osgood's publishing rivals have stolen it, or is there an even deeper mystery going on? Accompanied by Daniel's sister, Osgood travels to England to search for clues about how Dickens planned on finishing Drood, unaware his enemies are close at hand. Pearl enriches his story through extended flashbacks, the inclusion of actual historical figures, including Osgood himself, and an in-depth knowledge of Dickens's career and literary works. Strongly recommended for all public libraries. [For some very different literary takes on Charles Dickens, see Richard Flanagan's Wanting, reviewed on p. 94, and Dan Simmons's Drood, reviewed in LJ1/09.-Ed.]
—Laurel Bliss

Kirkus Reviews
A rousing yarn of opium, book pirating, murder most foul, man-on-man biting and other shenanigans-and that's just for starters. Charles Dickens is dead, and, inexplicably, people are beginning to die because of that fact-not because they've got no reason to live absent new tales from a beloved author, but because said author's last work-in-progress contains evidence of real-life mayhem that its perpetrators, it would seem, do not wish to see publicized. So runs the premise that Pearl (The Poe Shadow, 2006, etc.), who specializes in literary mysteries, offers. The story unfolds on the docks of Boston, to which an office boy has run to retrieve the next installment of Dickens's Mystery of Edwin Drood, fresh off the boat from London. Said boy expires, unpleasantly, while a stranger of most peculiar manner is seen skulking in the vicinity, conspicuous by his "decidedly English accent" and "brown-parchment complexion," suggestive of India and imperial milieus beyond. Dickens's American publisher-better put, the only publisher in America who is paying the author royalties rather than stealing his work-sets out to solve the crime and retrieve the manuscript, with the clerk's resourceful sister on hand to help on a journey across oceans and continents. Meanwhile, our stranger is up to more nasty business, slashing throats, sawing bones and giving people the willies. It's clear that Pearl is having a fine time of it all, firing off a few inside jokes at the publishing business along the way: No matter that Dickens is dead with only six chapters done, says his London editor a trifle ungrammatically, for "Every reader who picks up the book, finding it unfinished, can spend their time guessing whatthe ending should be. And they'll tell their friends to buy a copy and do the same, so it can be argued."A pleasing whodunit that resolves nicely, bookending Dan Simmons's novel Drood (2009) as an imaginative exercise in what might be called alternative literary history. Author tour to Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Iowa City, Madison, Wis., Scottsdale, Ariz., San Francisco, Seattle

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.24(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Bengal, India, June 1870

Neither of the young mounted policemen fancied these subdivisions of the Bagirhaut province. Neither of them fancied jungles where all manner of things could happen unprovoked, unseen, as they had a few years before when a poor lieutenant was stripped, clubbed, and drowned in the river for trying to collect licensing taxes.

The officers clamped the heels of their boots tighter into their horses’ flanks. Not to say they were scared—only careful.

“You must be careful always,” said Turner to Mason as they ducked the low branches and vines. “Be assured, the natives in India do not value life. Not even as the poorest Englishman does.”

The younger of the two policemen, Mason, nodded thoughtfully at the words of his impressive partner, who was nearly twenty-five years old, who had two brothers also come from England to be in Indian Civil Service, and who had fought the Indian rebellion a few years before. He was an expert if ever one was.

“Perhaps we should have come with more men, sir.”

“Well, that’s pretty! More men, Mason? We shan’t need any more than our two heads between us to take in a few ragged dacoits. Remember, a high-mettled horse stands not for hedge nor ditch.”

When Mason had arrived in Bengal from Liverpool for his new post, he accepted Turner’s offer to “chum,” pooling incomes and living expenses and passing their free time in billiards or croquet. Mason, at eighteen, was thankful for counsel from such an experienced man in the ranks of the Bengal police. Turner could list places a policeman ought never to ride alone because of the Coles, the Santhals, the Assamee, the Kookies, and the hill tribes in the frontiers. Some of the criminal gangs among the tribes were dacoits, thieves; others, warned Turner, carried axes and wanted English heads. “The natives of India value life only as far as they can kill when doing so,” was another Turner proverb.

Fortunately, they were not hunting out that sort of bloodthirsty gang in these wasting temperatures this morning. Instead they were investigating a plain, brazen robbery. The day before, a long train of twenty or thirty bullock carts had been hit with a shower of stones and rocks. In the chaos, dacoits holding torches tipped over the carts and fled with valuable chests from the convoy. When intelligence of the theft reached the police station, Turner had gone to their supervisor’s desk to volunteer himself and Mason, and their commander had sent them to question a known receiver of stolen goods.

Now, as the terrain thinned, they neared the small thatched house on the creek. A dwindling column of smoke hovered above the mud chimney. Mason gripped the sword at his belt. Every two men in the Bengal police were assigned one sword and one light carbine rifle, and Turner had naturally claimed the rifle.

“Mason,” he said with a slight smile in his voice after noticing the anxious look on his partner’s face. “You are green, aren’t you? It is highly likely they have unloaded the goods and fled already. Perhaps for the mountains, where our elaka—that is like ‘jurisdiction,’ Mason—where our elaka does not extend. No matter, really, when captured, they lie and say they are innocent peasants until the corrupt darkie magistrates release them. What do you say to going tiger shooting upon some elephants?”

“Turner!” Mason whispered, just then, interrupting his partner.

They were coming upon the thatched-roof house where a bright red horse was tied to a post (the natives in these provinces often painted their horses unnatural colors). A slight rustle at the house drew their eyes to a pair of men fitting the description of two of the thieves. One of them held a torch. They were arguing.

Turner signaled Mason to stay quiet. “The one on the right, it’s Narain,” he whispered and pointed. Narain was a known opium thief against whom several attempts at conviction had failed.

The opium poppy was cultivated in Bengal and refined there under English control, after which the colonial government sold the drug at auction to opium traders from England, America, and other nations. From there, the traders would transport the opium for sale to China, where it was illegal but still in great demand. The trade was enormously profitable for the British government.

Dismounting, Turner and Mason split up and approached the thieves from two sides. As Mason crept through the bushes from around the back, he could not help but think about their good fortune: not only that two of the thieves were still at the suspected ?confederate’s house but also that their argument was serving as distraction.

As Mason made his way around the thick shrubbery he jumped out at Turner’s signal and displayed his sword at the surprised Narain, who put up two trembling hands and lay flat on the ground. Meanwhile the other thief had pushed Turner down and dashed into the dense trees. Turner staggered to his feet, aimed his rifle, and shot. He fired a wild second shot into the jungle.

They tied the prisoner and traced the fugitive’s path but soon lost the trail. While searching up and down the curve of the rough creek, Turner lunged at something on the ground. Upon reaching the spot, Mason saw with great pride in his chum that Turner had bludgeoned a cobra with his carbine. But the cobra was not dead and it rose up again as Mason approached and tried to strike. Such was the peril of the Bengalee jungle.

Abandoning the hunt for the other thief, they returned to the spot where they’d left Narain tied to a tree and freed him, leading him as they took the horses they’d borrowed back to the police outpost. There, they boarded the train with their prisoner in tow to bring Narain to the district of their station house.

“Get some sleep,” Turner said to Mason with a brotherly care. “You look worn out. I can guard the dacoit.”

“Thank you, Turner,” said Mason gratefully.

The eventful morning had been exhausting. Mason found an empty row of seats and covered his face with his hat. Before long he fell into a deep sleep beneath the rattling window, where a slow breeze made the compartment nearly tolerable. He woke to a horrible echoing scream—the kind that lived sometimes in his nightmares of Bengal’s jungles.

When he shook himself into sensibility he saw Turner standing alone staring out the window.

“Where’s the prisoner?” Mason cried.

“I don’t know!” Turner shouted, a wild glint in his eyes. “I looked the other way for a moment, and Narain must have thrown himself out the window!”

They pulled the alarm for the train to stop. Mason and Turner, with the help of an Indian railway policeman, searched along the rocks and found Narain’s crushed and bloody body. His head had been smashed open at impact. His hands were still tied together with wire.

Solemnly, Mason and Turner abandoned the body and reboarded the train. The young English officers were silent the remaining train ride to the station house, except for some unmusical humming by Turner. They had almost reached the terminal when Turner posed a question.

“Answer me this, Mason. Why did you enroll in the mounted police?”

Mason tried to think of a good answer but was too troubled. “To raise a little dust, I suppose. We all want to make some noise in the world.”

“Stuff!” said Turner. “Never lose sight of the true blessings of public service. Each one of us is here to turn out a better civilization in the end, and for that reason alone.”

“Turner, about what happened today . . .” The younger man’s face was white.

“What’s wrong?” Turner demanded. “Luck was with us. That cobra might have done us both in.”

“Narain . . . the suspected dacoit. Well, shouldn’t we, I mean, to collect up the names and statements of the passengers for our diaries so that if there is any kind of inquiry . . .”

“Suspected? Guilty, you meant. Never mind, Mason. We’ll send one of the native men.”

“But, won’t we, if Dickens, I mean . . .”

“What mumbling! You oughtn’t chew your words.”

“Sir,” the younger officer enunciated forcefully, “considering for a moment Dickens—”

“Mason, that’s enough! Can’t you see I’m tired?” Turner hissed.

“Sir,” Mason said, nodding.

Turner’s neck had become stiff and veiny at the sound of that particular name: Dickens. As though the word had been rotting deep inside him and now crawled back up his throat.

Meet the Author

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, and the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales. Pearl is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School and has taught literature at Harvard and at Emerson College. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Last Dickens 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 98 reviews.
carlosmock More than 1 year ago
On June 8, 1880, Charles Dickens suddenly dies. When the news reaches Boston, his American Publisher, Boston's Fields and Osgood & Co., is placed in jeopardy. Through them, Dickens had published six installments of his latest novel: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With the novel unfinished, the struggling Boston publishing company is in jeopardy of being taken over by the New York Publisher Harper and Brother. Mr. James Ripley Osgood, and Miss Rebecca Sands are sent to England to look for clues to see if they can find any leads as to how Dickens was planning to finish the novel. Miss Sand's brother, Daniel, was killed as he was sent to the harbor to receive the last installment of the novel. Danger and intrigue abound throughout the journey. As they attempt to uncover real life mysteries hidden by the unfinished novel, Osgood and Rebecca find themselves fighting a dangerous web of publishing houses thugs, drug dealers (opium was legal in those days). They soon realize that solving the puzzle is a matter of life and death, and the key to stopping a murderous mastermind. This is in essence the plot. However, after a brilliant debut with The Dante Club, Mr. Pearl's first novel, he has followed with two disasters. The Poe Shadow, and now The Last Dickens. The problem with Dickens is first of all that Mr, Pearl has chosen a universal point of view to tell us his story. Few writers can get away with that, and Mr. Pearl is not one of them. Within chapters you get lost trying to figure out who's talking. The second problem with the book, and related to the first is the incredible number of characters. At one point i had to stop and start writing who was who. Not only that, but in the middle of a chapter Mr. Pearl decides to update us on something that happened way back. There are changes of scene (from India, to America to England) and flashbacks that come and go and create such a tangle that he had lost me by the second "installment". Finally, the tedious detail and research are quite boring. By the last installment when we FINALLY untangle and discover the truth--i felt like: who cares. This could have been a great novel if Mr. Pearl had chosen a better editor. The plot is quite good, but it was extremely poorly delivered.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pearl's latest work plods along. Over a hundred pages of it could've been edited out and you would have missed nothing. If it is a real intriquing book you're looking for, this isn't it. Since the Dante Club his following novels read sometimes as if they are gasping for air.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
The Short of It: A literary adventure of the most enjoyable kind. The Last Dickens is a historical literary thriller that includes a good dose of mystery, lots of bookish references and a smattering of romance all rolled into one. The Rest of It: The Last Dickens is a fictionalization that focuses on the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Although the novel started out a tad slow for me, it didn't take long for me to get into the story or its characters. As I was reading, I found myself thinking about silent films from the early 1900's. Why, you ask? Well, the villains in those films were these creepy, shadowy apparitions that appeared out of nowhere. There is much of that in this novel as well. Additionally, the lure of the opium dens and their smoky interiors add to the mysterious air of the novel. Films from that era had to rely on setting and the setting that Pearl paints, draws the reader in. However, what I really enjoyed were the passages about Dickens himself. Pearl does an excellent job of making Dickens an accessible, compassionate human being. The eccentricities of the author shine through, yet he is a bit softer around the edges...more likable I guess. Earlier in the year I read Drood by Dan Simmons. In that novel, the sections that dealt with Dickens and his American tour seemed a tad tedious to get through. I didn't find that to be the case with The Last Dickens. Pearl takes the time to focus on Dickens as a man, and not just his readings alone. I felt that this alone helped the reader understand how much this man was loved by his readers. Another item of importance is that it is not necessary for you to have read any of Dickens's work. Doing so certainly adds to the experience but The Last Dickens does not require it of the reader. Overall, this reading adventure was well worth the trip and I look forward to reading Pearl's other works.
CathyB More than 1 year ago
"The Last Dickens", the latest novel by Matthew Pearl, focuses on Charles Dickens's final, unfinished novel, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". With the death of Mr. Dickens, what will become of his final manuscript? Is it really unfinished? If yes, did Dickens leave behind any clues as to how the novel would end? If no, where are the remaining pages? These are a few of the questions that arise at the start of the novel. When James Osgood, Dickens' American publisher, fails to obtain the first installment of Drood, he travels to London to see if these questions can be answered. This sounds like a simple task; however, I don't believe that simple is a word in Mr. Pearl's vocabulary. He creates an air of mystery surrounding these missing pages. Peppered with actual events, thievery, drugs and murder, the novel takes the reader on a journey of speculation - one plausible scenario regarding the fate of Drood - if curious, you must read for yourself. The story was broken down into three distinct story lines. Two of which complimented one another: Dickens's first American tour and the aftermath of Dickens's death. The third revolved around the life of Dickens' son in India. I enjoyed the plot and the writing; however, the obscure connection of this last story line to the rest of the novel, left me wanting. ----- I recommend to those who have read other works by Matthew Pearl and/or those who enjoy historical fiction, Dickens or the publishing world. I also recommend to those of you who have not read Matthew Pearl. ----- Other novels by Matthew Pearl: "The Dante Club", "Poe's Shadow". My favorite was "The Dante Club".
dragonzwisard More than 1 year ago
Masterful, creative, inventive, exciting, part ficiton & part fact, riveting ~~~ all these make "The Last Dickens" a superb novel. Mr Pearl has taken an original mystery (Charles Dickens last novel) & crafted a riveting who-dunnit by thoroughly researching Mr Dickens & London society in the 1870s. An excellent "read" for anyone on a rainy afternoon who is enjoys historical ficiton or a good mystery.
animalrights03 More than 1 year ago
When I picked up this book and read the back cover, I thought it sounded like the perfect adventure book, full of romance, mystery, intrigue, and excitement and it was all that eventually. The book is 387 pages long and it didn't get excititng until about 300. Oh sure there were some parts that made you wonder what would happen next, but they were quickly resolved. And as for the romance, don't buy this book if you are expecting a tale of exciting passion and love. Overall it was an okay read, but the back cover alone was almost more excting than the whole thing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm an avid reader and rarely does it happen that I cannot finish a book, but this one is getting to be a challenge. The plot is simply too plodding. Sure, I'll finish it. It's not in my nature to quit, but chances are I'll read a few other novels in between. I do like the original idea of this story and some of the interesting tidbits presented about Dicken's life has made me want to pick up a non-fiction biography on the man. For this reason alone, I am giving the story three stars. If you are into Dickensian novels, a better choice is "Mr. Timothy, by Louis Bayard.
2manybooks2littletime More than 1 year ago
This book is everything I have come to expect from Matthew Pearl. Publishers Weekly was way off base saying that it "fell short" of the standards set by Simmon's "Drood." I could barely get through "Drood" and wished I hadn't tried when I finished it.....this book I can't turn the pages fast enough. It is filled with good solid characters and a story that does not drag on in the least bit. Very suspenseful and entertaining.
bookworm52 More than 1 year ago
I have read The Dante Club, The Technologists and The Last Dickens and find them to be in the same historical mystery genre as The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Pearl's books bring history back to life and reignite the fascination with the history of America that I had as a teenager. While this is my least favorite of the three that I have read, it was still worth the purchase and the reading.
Merns More than 1 year ago
Pearl is really terrific. Great cameos from some of his previous characters. Also, he does a great job of styling his writing in this one to sound Dickensian. Only problem is now I'll have to read Edwin Drood. Probably should have first.
romeo_alpha More than 1 year ago
Another wonderful book from Matthew Pearl. Charles Dickens had written the first 6 installments of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD. Readers followed the story as each installment was printed in newspapers. The untimely death of Mr. Dickens shocked the literary world, broke the hearts of readers and sent his publishers back on their heels. Did Mr. Dickens finish the story? If so who has the manuscript? Was Edwin Drood murdered or is he still alive? What about Charles Dickens family? One hundred and forty years later Matthew Pearl takes us into the mystery surrounded by a mystery and wraps them with his mystery! All the characters, both real and ficticious, would put a smile on Mr. Dickens face. Mr. Pearl puts a smile on mine.
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Alejandro Guitron More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed learning more about the man behimd the masterpieces. Very good
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