The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl‘s The Last Dickens is one of a number of books about Charles Dickens‘ last, albeit unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  But what sets this novel apart from its compatriots is Pearl’s ability to build suspense and extrapolate from historical events to create a palpable underbelly of the publishing world.  

“A man stretched out on a crusty, ragged couch granted them admission into a corridor, after which they ascended a narrow stairs where every board groaned at their steps; perhaps out of despair, perhaps to warn the inhabitants.”  (Page 199 of hardcover)

Charles Dickens’ final, incomplete novel–he only completed six installments–caused a great deal of controversy as to whether the author indeed had not finished the manuscript, which in those days were released in installments.  Pearl mimics this method by breaking up the narration in separate installments from the Boston publishing house, Dickens’ American tour, Dickens’ son Frank in India at the height of the opium trade, and in England as Dickens’ American publisher Mr. Osgood with his bookkeeper Rebecca Sand search for the lost installments and the true end of Dickens’ final novel.

“At the top of the stick was an exotic and ugly golden idol, the head of a beast, a horn rising from the top, terrible mouth agape, sparks of fire shooting from its outstretched tongue.  It was mesmerizing to behold.  Not just because of its shining ugliness, but also because it was such a contrast to the stranger’s own mouth, mostly hidden under an ear-to-ear mustache.  The man’s lips barely managed to pry open his mouth when he spoke.”  (Page 8 of hardcover)

Pearl includes an examination of the historical accuracies in the novel and which characters were pure fiction or modified historical figures.  One part mystery, one part historical fiction, and one part crime novel, The Last Dickens weaves a complex and detailed story that holds readers rapt attention from beginning to end.

While the chapters involving Frank Dickens’ time in India uncovering an opium trade are not as prominent as some of the other narratives, it is intricately connected to the main story.  However, some readers could find these chapters frustrating because of the gap between those chapters, which could either leave readers frustrated that the tale of Frank Dickens is dropped or anxious for its conclusion.  Most readers are likely to err on the side of anxiety, wanting to know more.

“There are many reasons murder is not always found out, and they are not always for cunning.  The reason might be the fatigue among those who have been deadened on the inside.”  (Page 264 of hardcover)

Osgood is not easily swayed when he is hot on the trail of the missing installments and the end of Dickens’ novel, and as each layer of the mystery is peeled back for the reader, the dark, cutthroat publishing industry is revealed.  Bookaneers are the bottom feeders of the publishing industry, waiting on the docks for the latest installments from the Old World, while publishing giants from New York, like Harper, are eager to acquire these installments by any means necessary and at the expense of their competitors.

The Last Dickens is not just about an unfinished novel or the dark side of publishing.  It also takes a look at human conviction in the face of adversity and how perseverance and a moral compass can yield surprising results.  Pearl is a mystery master, and The Last Dickens will not disappoint its readers.

If you missed Matthew Pearl’s guest post, check it out.  I want to thank Matthew Pearl, Random House and TLC Book Tours for providing me a free copy of The Last Dickens for review.

Click on the title links for my Amazon Affiliate purchasing pages.  

For an additional treat, check out this YouTube video:

For the giveaway for U.S. and Canada residents:  ***Just got word I have 2 copies available***

1.  Leave a comment on this post.
2.  Blog, Tweet, or Spread the Word for an additional entry.
3.  If you follow, get a third entry.

Deadline is Oct. 29, 2009 at 11:59 PM EST

Matthew Pearl’s Writing Space

With my TLC Book Tour stop for Matthew Pearl‘s The Last Dickens scheduled for Oct. 22, I wanted to provide Matthew with his own guest post date, since he was kind enough to include some photos of his writing space along with the description.

Readers, you are in for a real treat.

This is a timely topic since I’m renovating a house as we speak, so I’ve been forced to think about my writing space from scratch.
We purchased a home built in the 1840s. It needed updating, and for structural reasons we had to do a full gut renovation. On the top floor, away from the (future) hustle and bustle, there were two mirror image rooms, and we knew one would be a guest bedroom and the other my office. My first decision was to choose which I wanted as the office. I actually chose the one facing the street, rather than facing the back of the house. It’s a quiet street and I know if I’m expecting a delivery of some kind I’d be much more productive being able to see it coming rather than constantly getting up to go to the front of the house and check.

Sometimes not seeing a distraction coming distracts me.

It’s nice to have some natural light, so we’ve put in a new skylight in my future study. And there’s a nice tree-scape, too, outside the window.

Writing The Last Dickens, I learned about Charles Dickens’s working space. He had two different rooms on his estate that were dedicated offices, and he switched between them seasonally. In one, he wrote the final words on the first half of his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A few hours later, he collapsed and never regained consciousness. The circumstances of this gave me my starting point for my novel. Here is one of Dickens’s working spaces from his era (the estate is now a high school):
I confess: I don’t like working at a desk. I work on a couch or, Edith Wharton-like, in bed. I know that’s not good for your sleep (because you then associate bed with work) or probably your carpal tunnels. I’m going to put a small sofa in the office, so I can either nap or work on it. I use the desk more to store and organize papers and folders.
The Last Dickens was written on the top floor we rented in the house below, the upper left window shown here was my office. This house was built in 1871, and my novel took place around 1870. Coincidence, but pretty neat! 
You always have certain knickknacks in your writing space that either inspire or comfort. Wherever my study is, one item always ends up on the wall. There’s a story behind it. When I was writing my first draft of my first novel, The Dante Club, I hadn’t told anyone about the project. Visiting my grandmother in Queens, New York, for lunch, before I left she stopped me. “I was just cleaning out the basement,” she said, “and found this I was going to throw away. It’s a picture of the American presidents. Do you want it?”
Except it wasn’t the American presidents. It was an elongated framed print of “Our American Poets.” With Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Emerson. The characters in The Dante Club, which nobody, including my grandmother, knew about! I took that as a sign I was meant to be writing my book. 
That’s always hanging somewhere near my desk. 

Thanks, Matthew, for sharing with us your writing space.  Looks like he has his work cut out for him with that renovation.