When Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, with quill in hand at his writing desk, he could not have known that leaving his serial novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished would have worldwide repercussions. From his son in the Bengal jungle to the Bookaneers, publishing companies, and fans in American to his family and publisher in London—everyone has or wants a stake in the book.
I'm only halfway done with this excellent and interesting novel involving Dickens's American publishers, Fields, Osgood & Co. When the sixth installment of Dickens's twelve-part novel arrives in Boston, James Osgood sends out junior clerk Daniel Sand to bring it back to the offices. Before the boy can return, he is run down by a omnibus and the manuscript has disappeared.
Osgood and one of the firm's bookkeepers, Rebecca Sand, sister to Daniel, face several mysteries: What really happened to Daniel, where is the manuscript, and how is Drood to end? The pair are sent to London to talk to Dickens's family and publisher, Chapman & Hall, to see if they can find any clues about the ending of the novel. The Americans hope to gather enough material to publish some sort of conclusion for the book.
Matthew Pearl has my attention, and I haven't yet figured out where the novel is going. For example, I'm not quite sure how Frank Dickens's story is going to tie in with the rest. He is an officer with the Bengal Mounted Police in India, and in mid-June he is not yet aware of his father's death. What will he know about the intended ending to Drood?
I am particularly taken with the American Bookaneers, individuals skilled in obtaining bootleg versions of manuscripts to sell to competing publishers in the days before strict copyright laws. Here's a bit about them:
The are literary pickpockets, of a sort. . . . Though they may appear to be common ruffians, they are by constitution cool in demeanor and highly intelligent. It is said from a brief glance at a single page of sheets, they can identify an author and the value of an unpublished manuscript. (p. 109)
I love the gossip about the publishing industry in the nineteenth century. My copy of the novel is full of sticky notes pointing out my favorite quotes. In one scene, we learn of a new trade journal called Publishers Weekly; in others we learn of the impending demise of the publishing industry and the sad news that bookstores might be forced to start selling more than just books (not much has changed!).
Pearl shows us the underbellies of Harper Brothers, Little and Brown, Chapman & Hall, and more, revealing fierce rivalries and differing philosophies. Here Fletcher Harper toasts Osgood:
To we happy few, the publishers of the world! Individuals who kindly assist authors to obtain an immortality in which we do not ourselves participate. (p. 28)
Finally, I really like the characters of James Osgood and Rebecca Sand. At the halfway point in the book, they have a mutually respectful and professional relationship. Osgood is still young enough to be idealistic and takes on the task of researching Drood with great enthusiasm. Sand is complex and intelligent. She is determined to move past her personal troubles to be one of few women of the late 1800s to support herself in a reputable manner.
So much for what I thought would be a short spotlight on a book I haven't finished. Apparently I had a lot to say! Look for a summary review next week after I have a chance to finish The Last Dickens. At this point I'm recommending it.
Published by Random House, 2009
Challenges: 999, 100
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Blog tour: TLC Book Tours