THE LAST DICKENS is one of the sub-genre of historical mystery, a literary thriller. It is set in 1870 right after the death of novelist Charles Dickens, with alternating flashback sequences during his last American reading tour a couple of years before that.
The flashbacks involve a stalker and the aftermath, eventually bringing it to a meeting with present day events.
James Osgood, of Dickens’ authorized American publisher, Fields, Osgood, & Co., sends a young clerk, Daniel Sand, down to the docks to pick up the packet from England containing the last installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood completed before Dickens’ death.
When the young man turns up dead, the packet missing, with needle marks in his arm, the police are inclined to believe he stumbled in front of the coach in an opium haze. Osgood doesn’t believe it and neither does his bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, sister to the dead man. They shared a room and she knows he was clean.
The missing packet can easily be replaced from England. The problem here is that America didn’t follow international copyright laws at the time. Anyone could publish books from other countries without worrying about royalties to the writer. There was a whole group of people, Bookaneers, who hung out at the docks and tried to intercept packets from England. Though not paying attention to copyright laws, American publishers had an understanding that if one got a book out, no one else would compete with them.
So there’s the mystery. When a lawyer present at Daniel’s death is found with his throat slit, the mystery deepens. Osgood and Rebecca go to England to look for clues and maybe, hopefully, find the rest of the book. Osgood is convinced Dickens finished the book.
Shortly after his death, Everyone connected with the author suffered a break-in, their places searched, but nothing taken. Someone was looking for something. There’s also an opium smuggling plot involved that reaches all the way to India and Dickens’ son, Francis, an officer with the Bengal Mounted Police.
I quite enjoyed this book. It showed me a little about the publishing world of the nineteenth century, so different from today. I learned more about Dickens than I ever knew(amazing that one can read the books and know almost nothing about those old, so famous, authors).
I would recommend this to anyone. It was my first exposure to Matthew Pearl’s work, but I think I need to find his other two literary mysteries, THE POE SHADOW, and THE DANTE CLUB. The trade edition, pictured here, is to be released next week.