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Monday, June 29, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Last Dickens

I thought it was just me, but here in America we seem to be on a Dickens kick. I just finished Matthew Pearl's latest, The Last Dickens and I am in the process of listening to the 24 discs that make up Dan Simmons, Drood.

There have also been the PBS Masterpiece reworkings of Dickens' Tales. I also looked back at my blog over the past 12 months and saw that Dickens had come up frequently. All I have to say is that somebody has been doing some great subliminal Dickens' marketing.

But on to the book at hand, Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens. I have read all three of Pearl's books. His newest has a more convincing mystery than Poe Shadow and is less bloody than The Dante Club. But like both of his previous books, The Last Dickens is chocked full of historical facts and people. In fact, at the end of the book, Pearl lists which characters were based on real people and which were made up for the narrative's sake.

Here is the basic plot. James Osgood, the American publisher for Dickens' work is waiting for the 6th installment of Dickens' latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to arrive. He sends his right hand man to the dock to await the manuscript, but the young man mysteriously dies on the way back to the office. Was it murder? A nefarious foreigner is also introduced as chasing down the manuscript.

A few days later, Dickens dies; thus leaving his last work unfinished forever. Osgood and and a young divorcee from his office, Rebecca, travel to England to try and unravel the mystery surrounding Dickens' death and his mysterious last novel. Like any amateur detective novel, Osgood is in for more than he bargained and mortal danger, high speed horse and carriage races, and burning buildings await him on his journey. Their adventures and inquiries make up one of the two main story lines.

The second storyline takes place 3 years previously, during Dickens' last American tour. James Osgood was a part of this tour, but it is Dickens' young bodyguard Tom Branagan, through whom we see the story here. The two story lines do merge in the "present" of the book in a satisfactory way.

The Last Dickens was published in 2009, but is written as if it were a novel of 1870. So to those reviewers who complain that the villain's need to explain himself at the end is a bit much, I say that's how it would have been in a crime novel in 1870. That is why I enjoyed this novel. It was very much about the time while also mimicking it. It is even written in 6 "installments," just as the real publication of The Mystery of Edwn Drood was. And much like installment published novels of the era, Pearl ends each installment with a cliff hanger, but begins the next with the other storyline, alternating until the two collide and the novel moves briskly toward a conclusion. Again, just like most novels in the late 19th Century. As a reader who appreciates the history of leisure reading, I loved this aspect.

Without giving the ending away, I do have to mention some of the complaints about it. This is a work of historical fiction. Historical fiction needs to stay true to history. History stands than The Mystery of Edwin Drood went unfinished. This book needed to end with an unfinished book. However, The Last Dickens is also a mystery. And here our mystery involves what the finished book would contain. So, Pearl needed to have Osgood find the manuscript to have a satisfactory resolution to the mystery, but then he still needed to have it lost somehow, preserving the true historical outcome.

Personally, As I was getting closer to the end and Osgood had discovered that the last 6 installments were probably out there, I was getting worried that he would find them. Once he did locat ethe pages, I appreciated that rather exaggerated way in whcih they were lost forever. But really, I think it is a matter of taste; you will either like the ending or think it is a cop out.

Readalikes: There are so many options here. First and foremost is the other current book about Dickens' and his last work, Drood by Dan Simmons. Also, many are going to want to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood for themselves. Here is a link to all of Dickens work while we are at it.

Some critics have called The Mystery of Edwin Drood the first modern crime novel. Some other books that compete for that title are Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and The Dupin Tales by Poe (this edition has an introduction by Mattew Pearl).

Other similar titles would be the novels Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott and The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, both of which I have read and written about here and here.

Similar nonfiction readalikes would be The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, The Lost City of Z : a Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

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