It was with some hesitation that I took up The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl but after reading Hard Times last week, I was finally ready. Happily, The Last Dickens proved to be a return to the intrigue of a masterfully crafted plot that Pearl demonstrated first in The Dante Club.
It’s 1870 and Charles Dickens is dead but what’s worse, his latest novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains unfinished. For the Boston based publishing house of Fields, Osgood, & Co. this news spreads sorrow tinged with desperation when it throws the financial promise of their position as Dickens’ exclusive publisher in America into doubt. Compounding this sorrow is the tragedy of an accident involving one of their promising young clerks, Daniel Sand. In an effort to make their edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood the monetary success they need, one of the partners, James Osgood, embarks on a mission to find whatever remains there may be of Dickens’ plans for the novel’s hotly disputed ending for their exclusive edition.
Presented in installments as Dickens’ novels were originally released, Pearl’s book jumps back and forth in time and place, between Dickens’ final speaking tour of the United States, England in the weeks following Dickens’ death, and even through an investigation into stolen opium in Bengal. Too many things happen in too many places at the novel’s opening, causing a great deal of confusion. It is with the second installment that the pace slows down enough for the reader to begin unraveling the threads of the narrative so they can begin piecing together the larger picture.
In some ways, The Last Dickens could be considered a sequel to The Dante Club or at the very least, a continuation. Several of the same characters are used, though their appearances are largely restricted to the background. James Fields remains the figurehead of the prolific publishing house and appearances by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (even Emerson pops up). The Last Dickens hands the torch over to the next generation through James R. Osgood, Fields’ junior partner, and emphasizes that there are changes on the horizon for the world of publishing with the threat of the Harper Brothers looming from their headquarters in New York City.
I think that part of what made this novel more successful than The Poe Shadow (at least for me), was the switch back to a third person narrator. There were times when the characters could be as frustrating as the narrator of Poe, but because the narrative is not restricted to any of their individual minds, the reader is given a break. It also allowed for greater flexibility as the parallel lines of Dickens’ American tour and Osgood’s investigation across England gradually come together.
There was only one point in the novel where I became truly frustrated, but it had nothing to do with the story at hand. With all the little references to The Dante Club, it was apparently impossible to make it through the novel without a little nod to The Poe Shadow as well, drawing a parallel between Poe’s ratiocination and Dickens’ interest in mesmerism. Though the scene was brief, the association tainted my enjoyment of the novel at hand but only for a few pages.
In The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl proved that The Dante Club was not a one hit wonder and did much to redeem himself for this reader after The Poe Shadow. I look forward to seeing which nineteenth century writer(s) he tackles in his next book.