The Last Dickens

The Last Dickens

3.4 97
by Matthew Pearl
     
 

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Matthew Pearl reopens one of literary history’s greatest mysteries in his most enthralling novel yet, a tale filled with the dazzling twists and turns, the unerring period details, and the meticulous research that thrilled readers of bestsellers The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.

Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s untimelySee more details below

Overview

Matthew Pearl reopens one of literary history’s greatest mysteries in his most enthralling novel yet, a tale filled with the dazzling twists and turns, the unerring period details, and the meticulous research that thrilled readers of bestsellers The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.

Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s untimely death reaches the office of his struggling American publisher, Fields & Osgood, partner James Osgood sends his trusted clerk Daniel Sand to await Dickens’s unfinished novel–The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But when Daniel’s body is discovered by the docks and the manuscript is nowhere to be found, Osgood must embark on a transatlantic quest to unearth the novel that will save his venerable business and reveal Daniel’s killer.

Danger and intrigue abound on the journey, for which Osgood has chosen Rebecca Sand, Daniel’s older sister, to help clear her brother’s name and...

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Editorial Reviews

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
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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400066568
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/17/2009
Pages:
400
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(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.

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