13 October 2009

Review (Part I): The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

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 It is said from a brief glance at a single page of sheets, they can identify an author and the value of an unpublished manuscript.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
ISBN-13: 9781400066568
Challenges: 999, 100
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Blog tour: TLC Book Tours
YTD: 76
Rating: B


Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 10/13/09, 9:45 AM  

I'm glad that you are enjoying the book so far. I wondered too when Frank was going to find out!

Anonymous,  10/13/09, 9:50 AM  

Hi Beth. I seen that you had replied to Amy's post about joining my Pretty Little Liars Challenge, I hope that you do. The challenge is going on until the end of Dec of next year. And there are awesome prizes! One winner will win the whole series and another winner will win the first 4 books in the series, signed by the author!! :) I hope you join me!

Molly 10/13/09, 9:55 AM  

I have this fantasy that I will someday sit down and read the Mystery of Edwin Drood, Drood, and The Last Dickens in succession. I hope that I can make it a reality!

I look forward to reading your 2nd (and perhaps more) reviews of this engaging book.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 10/13/09, 10:38 AM  

You've given us a teaser with your preview of the book and the quotes you cited.

I'm also intrigued by the American Bookaneers and the references to Publishers Weekly and early published houses ... very interesting.

LisaMM 10/13/09, 10:41 AM  

Thanks for the report half way through. Glad you're enjoying the book thus far!

Kailana 10/13/09, 12:13 PM  

This book looks good. I am going to have get it eventually!

Stacy 10/13/09, 12:15 PM  

This sounds really good...I am putting it on my tbr list.

Sandy Nawrot 10/13/09, 1:59 PM  

So I have a dumb question. Is this classified as historical fiction, or is it truly non-fiction? If someone would have offered the book to me, I'm not sure I would have read it. It would have all kinds of potential to be dry, but apparently not! I can't wait to hear more!

Beth F 10/13/09, 2:16 PM  

Sandy: I consider this historical fiction. Matthew Pearl has generously offered to write a guest post for me, so look for that on Monday -- it will answer some of these questions. Also see this conversation at Library Thing: here.

Trisha 10/13/09, 2:34 PM  

Wow, you're making this sound like a can't miss! I read Pearl's debut and found it entertaining but not earth-shattering; perhaps I should give him another try.

bermudaonion 10/13/09, 4:06 PM  

The book sounds like it would be worth reading for the gossip alone!

Julie P. 10/13/09, 5:28 PM  

This book sounds so interesting! It seems like the author did a great deal of research.

bookmagic 10/13/09, 6:22 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
bookmagic 10/13/09, 6:24 PM  

I enjoyed Matthew Pearls last 2 books and have this on my list as well. I didn't think it came out until next month, so am excited to see it's available now

Margot 10/13/09, 7:21 PM  

It sounds like there is a lot to offer Dicken's lovers as well as historical fiction and mystery fans. I look forward to your guest post and part 2.

nat @book, line, and sinker 10/13/09, 9:12 PM  

how intriguing--what a great teaser post! i'm looking forward to your final assessment.

i couldn't appreciate dickens when i was in high school, but now that i'm more (ahem...)mature, i appreciate and enjoy his writing!

Jenners 10/13/09, 9:41 PM  

So interesting to review a book in mid-read!!! I like this idea! : )

Unknown 10/14/09, 5:34 AM  

I enjoyed the Dante Club, so was interested to hear what this would be like. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the full book - it sounds like one I might have to get.

JoAnn 10/14/09, 6:40 AM  

I love it - a serialized review for The Last Dickens is very fitting!

Jenn's Bookshelves 10/14/09, 8:32 AM  

I've seen so many stellar reviews of this book. I can't wait to read your review once you've finished reading it. I love that you decided to do a review based on what you've read so far. Great idea!

Jen - Devourer of Books 10/14/09, 11:28 PM  

If you liked this one you should really read "The Dante Club," that was my favorite of his three novels (this was my 2nd favorite).

Veens 10/15/09, 4:25 AM  

I wish I had this book... i would have loved to discuss this! I mean there is so much.. wow!

Waiting on the final verdict!

Serena 10/15/09, 9:35 AM  

I'm glad that you are enjoying the novel. I really love it so far. I think I'm about halfway through...and the publishing industry stuff is fascinating.

Anonymous,  10/16/09, 9:36 AM  

I've only read one Dickens so far, so not sure if I would understand everything. However, it sounds interesting, regardless.

Lisa 10/17/09, 11:17 AM  

Love Dickens and I've been anxious to get my hands on this one. Sounds like I'm not going to be disappointed.

S. Krishna 10/21/09, 10:11 AM  

I enjoyed this one as well, but it was a bit slow at times so I understand why you haven't finished it yet! Looking forward to your full review!

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