The Last Dickens is a literary mystery involving a search for the missing manuscript of the final, unfinished Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This book didn't appeal to me when it was published a couple of years ago because at that time I had only read one Charles Dickens book and didn't have much interest in reading a historical fiction novel about him. Since then, though, I've read a few more of Dickens' books (including Edwin Drood) and so I thought I would give The Last Dickens a try now.
In 1870, the new Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is being serialised by his American publisher Field, Osgood & Company, who are based in Boston. When Field and Osgood send their young office clerk, Daniel Sand, to the docks to collect the latest instalment which has been sent from England, Daniel is later found dead under suspicious circumstances. With the shocking news that Dickens has also died and left his novel incomplete, James R Osgood travels to England in search of clues as to how the story may have been going to end. Osgood is accompanied by Daniel Sand's sister, Rebecca, another employee of the publishing house. Can they uncover the truth about Daniel's death and at the same time find the remaining chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?
Just when Osgood and Rebecca's adventures start to get exciting, the story is interrupted with a very long flashback to Dickens's American tour several years earlier. Some of this was interesting (it's such a shame there was no recording equipment in those days as it would have been fascinating to have been able to hear Dickens reading his books on stage to an audience!), but there was a lot of detail that I didn't think was absolutely necessary and by the time we returned to Rebecca and Osgood the flow of the story had been completely lost. There were also some shorter sections set in India, where Dickens's son Frank, serving with the Bengal Mounted Police, is on the trail of opium thieves, but I didn't think this sub-plot really added anything to the book and I admit I didn't quite understand what was going on.
One aspect of the book I did enjoy was the insight into the American publishing industry in the 19th century, a time when copyright laws appeared to be virtually non-existent. There are some entertaining descriptions of the lengths publishers would go to in order to obtain manuscripts and be the first to publish them.
Another similar book which was released around the same time as this one was Drood by Dan Simmons. I read Drood last year and although I had a couple of problems with that book too, I think I probably enjoyed it more than The Last Dickens. It's interesting to see how two different authors can use the same historical material to create such very different books.
on 10 February 2012
After the success of the well written and absorbing Dante Club, I found this a terrible disappointment. The flow was disjointed and boring, as though the author was storing up his mild surprises for crucial points of the book; except, they were not that interesting. A one trick pony relying on an earlier success which was much better plotted and executed. The best way to describe the books progress was like tuning into a long running soap, where you keep watching but it seems to go on forever.
on 1 April 2016
I will hold my hand up to two things at the start of this review. Firstly I am drawn to fiction based on other fiction, and secondly I'm not a big Dickens fan. For various reasons I just don't find him an interesting read.
However I can't deny his impact as a novelist at a time when reading as a past time was only just reaching the masses. And so this book looked intriguing.
Primarily set immediately after the death of the famous author, having completed exactly half of the installments of his latest book - The Mystery of Edwin Drood - James Osgood, the junior partner in his American publishers is sent to England to try to track down any other parts of the manuscript.
However dark forces are afoot; there are two murders related to the Dickens papers in short order and Osgood is attacked on the ship to England. Clearly someone does not want any more of Drood to be published.
Pearl has taken one of the greatest literary mysteries of all (there really are no clues about how Drood was supposed to conclude) and wrapped it in another fictional conundrum. He has clearly researched all of the details very well and uses real people - including Osgood and Dickens himself- along with fictional characters to tell the story. This gives the plot a certain solidity because so much of it is based in reality, with the fabricated parts showing through the cracks.
The narrative moves between 1870 and Osgood's quest, to India at the same time where Frank Dickens (son of Charles) is investigating drug smuggling and to 1868 when Dickens is performing a reading tour of America.
The plot is more-or-less highly plausible, just some coincidental points that require a little suspension of disbelief. The writing is excellent throughout, highly descriptive and particularly good at capturing the personalities of the characters (as would be expected given how carefully this has been researched). There are several action scenes at the book progresses and these are handled well. The villains are unmasked in classical style, gloating with our heroes apparently doomed only for the tables to be turned.
Honestly I was expecting this to be reasonably interesting, highlighting aspects of Dickens' life and death with a little light murder mystery thrown in. In the end I would call this nothing less than a triumph and will definitely be looking to read more of Pearl's work.
It's still not tempted me to read any Dickens, though...
on 2 January 2012
Matthew Pearl's third historical literary thriller turns its sights onto the mystery of Dickens' final unfinished work. Shortly after his death, Dickens' American publisher embarks on a search to find out the true ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before his rivals can release a fake.
One of the most interesting parts for me was that around the history of American publishing. Even in the late 17th Century Harper & Brothers (to later become the modern day HarperCollins) were considered the evil publisher trying to usurp independents. Whilst the Bookaneers were by today's standards criminals, it's good to think that literature was exciting enough to elicit such a response that today would be limited to film and music.
As always, Pearl's historical research is interesting reading and most of the stories revolving around Charles Dickens himself are considered fact. The book depicts that beginnings of celebrity culture, with crazed fans and people camping out overnight to purchase tickets. Not to mention those who buy up tickets and sell them for a profit. I bet you thought all these things were modern!
The fiction itself focuses on publisher James Osgood who was indeed Dickens' representative in America, where at the time international copyright laws didn't apply. The plot isn't particularly strong and probably not helped by the fact that we know Drood remains incomplete to this day. Dickens' son, Francis was also featured, in his role as police in India and involvement with the opium trade. I didn't quite see the relevance of this, despite opium being widely used throughout the story, and it was somewhat distracting.
If you're interested in the historical aspect, it's a worthwhile read but if you're after a fast paced thriller, you would do better elsewhere.
Set shortly after Dickens's death in 1870, and told partly in flashback, this novel follows (real-life) Boston publisher James Osgood as he tries to find any clues as to what Dickens had in mind for the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his famously unfinished last book. This journey takes him from New England to England, to Rochester, Dickens's former residence Gadshill Place, and London.
I've never read anything by Matthew Pearl before, and, if this book is representative of his writing, probably won't be seeking out his other books, namely The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow. That's a shame because it started promisingly enough. The Last Dickens appears well researched, and I got a sense of Charles Dickens the man, and not just the author. Unfortunately his characterisations remain shallow and two-dimensional throughout, apart from Dickens himself, who comes across as a complex character. The prose remains flat, and never allows for a tense atmosphere to build up; the only exception is the scene at the London opium den, where I could see the opium smoke pervade the dingy room, and smell its intoxicating vapours. In terms of plot, it sometimes appeared as if I was reading a Victorian melodrama, Osgood's enemies almost becoming caricatures of themselves in their inherent villainy. If this was supposed to be the author's intention, then he doesn't pull it off as it appears as a parody of itself. Matthew Pearl tells us that with his character of Rebecca, Osgood's bookkeeper and love interest, he tried to reflect 'the real achievements and challenges in a new class of single working women ... as well as that of divorced women.' So, while probably historically accurate, I felt that Rebecca was often reduced to a mere accessory and wasn't given nearly enough to do for a modern reader. The central mystery was intriguing, especially when presented with all the historical facts that the author integrated into this novel, but the Indian subplot involving one of Dickens's sons bore only the slightest of connections to the rest of the narration and was extremely distracting as I was expecting it to make some sense in the wider context until right up to the end when it's clear that it doesn't.
A book for lovers of Dickens and literary murder mysteries, but unfortunately not for me.
on 11 October 2010
This book is set mainly in America in the 1860s and 70s, swapping between the time when Charles Dickens was doing a speaking tour of some American cities, and after his death in Rochester in London. It also concerns his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was unfinished when he died. The main character is Osgood, one of his publishers in America. During the speaking tour there is a strange woman who appears to be stalking Dickens, and when Charles Dickens dies it appears she has something to do with the end of the novel, which a lot of people think Dickens has hidden somewhere. There is also another bit which is set in India, which I didn't really get, but I think it was to do with the opium trade, which is a main part of Edwin Drood. I won't tell you what happens at the end...but really the book could have been so much better! It got a bit confusing, and there were a few characters which I wasn't sure what they were doing there. This could have been a great book, but it was a bit..cluttered. I have read another book by Matthew Pearl, The Dante Club, which at the time I really liked, so I think I would read more by him, but not too sure about this book.
This one seems to fly all over the place and is hugely disappointing after reading Drood by Dan Simmons.
In many ways the themes are similar but this one is confusing and gets bogged down, apparently heading nowhere fast with a convoluted plot that ultimately peters out into nothing and sub plots that never develop. I would find it difficult to recommend particularly as Dickens has died by the time the action begins, but we keep dipping back into his life.
on 25 July 2010
Another excellent blend of historical fact with suspensful fiction from Matthew Pearl. As he did with the Dante Club, Pearl cleverly intertwines a complex and compelling narrative to bring interest, intrigue and new life to such a well known figure as Charles Dickens and, in this instance, his last, but unfinished, work. The characterisations are well rendered and believable. Previous knowledge of the preceeding Dante Club adds to the depth and history of some such, importantly though, the lack of such knowledge does not detract from the enjoyment of the story. All in all a very enjoyable, thriller, that steadily gathers pace and complexity, keeping the reader engaged until the last. Well recommended.
on 25 January 2010
Having really liked The Dante Club, somehow, I missed out on Matthew Pearl's second novel (The Poe Shadow) and gone straight on to The Last Dickens. Boston, Massachusetts, which I know reasonably well features yet again in what is an exploration of what might have happened around the creation of Edwin Drood (Charles Dickens' last novel). Knowing a location or two really helps but, for me, Boston did not come alive so much as it did in The Dante Club (interesting to see who is acknowledged in the creativity process, by Matthew Pearl).
On the other hand, some aspects of locale creation in England were quite good (more could have been made of the London underworld and sewers! For example, see Clare Clark's The Great Stink. The evocation of Gadshill Place was interesting and made this reviewer want to go to Rochester again to look at the property. Overall, it's a well-written novel, just not as good as The Dante Club.
on 24 April 2009
I'd enjoyed the Dante Club so thought this could be worthwhile. Big mistake. This book is poor: the plot is ludicrous unless it's actually meant to be a parody of the "penny dreadfuls" of the period itself, the characterisations are weak and shallow, and often stereotypes, there's a pointless parallel subplot in India... I've wasted enough time on this book already so won't continue, just want to warn you please don't make the same mistake.