Matthew Pearl: The Last Dickens (review)

While Dan Simmons took on the last 5 years of Dickens’ life in Drood, Matthew Pearl focuses on Dickens’ last journey to America as well as what happened right after his death. Both Pearl and Simmons try to solve the mystery of Edwin Drood – and Pearl actually wrote the introduction to the edition of Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood that I read. Drood was an amazing book and Pearl is supposed to be a literary Dan Brown. He has previously written about Edgar Allen Poe as well as Dante so I had really high hopes for this book since I am so fascinated by the entire Dickens-Drood conundrum.

There’s three storylines in the book. One is the hunt for the end of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one follows Charles Dickens on his last reading tour in America and finally, the last one follows Charles Dickens’ son Frank Dickens in India, hunting opium smugglers.

So what happens when the world’s most popular novelist dies? In 1870, Dickens died while in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This makes his American publisher rather desperate since they were pinning all their hopes on this novel. So James Osgood, the junior partner, travels to England to see if he can find any clues to how Dickens intended to end the novel – and thereby save the publishing house.

But not everyone is interested in finding out how the book ended and Osgood is not the only one trying to find any clues. And he does find clues – as well as an inn keeper with a missing son named Edward Trood. He visits Dickens’ home and sees it being broken into pieces and sold off  as well as an opium den in London – and he is helped by a man calling himself Dick Datchery and followed by a mysterious man with a walking stick with an ugly golden idol on top of it.

With Osgood travels a young woman working for the publishing house, Rebecca. Rebecca’s brother David, who also worked for the firm, was killed trying to get the last installment safely from the harbor to the publishing house and the manuscript was lost. But was David’s death an accident or is the manuscript in fact so valuable that people are ready to kill for it?

My favorite story line was following Dickens and his tour of America. He was the character who felt the most real to me and I enjoyed reading about the aging writer fighting of sickness to give the public what they wanted. Also, this storyline involved an obsessed fan stalking Dickens and this part worked very well and the whole frenzy surrounding ticket sales to the Dickens readings really came to life.

There are a lot of good about this novel. I really like how he incorporates the story of Edwin Drood into this. How he uses the hints we do get in Dickens’ novel about a boy and his uncle and the uncle’s opium abuse and then just takes it from there and runs with it. This way of creating tension in the plot really worked. Also, just like Dan Simmons did in Drood, Pearl emphasizes how Dickens drew inspiration from everything around him to create his stories. I like how Pearl lets the solving of an actual murder mystery be the new thing Dickens wanted to do, that had never been seen before. And parts of the story are really fascinating and exciting. And since this a novel with parts of it being real, and parts being fiction, I really like that Pearl elaborates in a short postscript about who and what is real and what’s not.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of not so good. I’ll start by saying that since I just read Dan Simmons’ take on the whole Dickens-Drood subject, I naturally compare the two. And unfortunately, there’s no real competition – Simmons wins hands down. It was more intriguing, more exciting, more fascinating. Even though in some ways, the plot in Pearl’s novel was probably more believable, it just didn’t feel that way when you read the novels. Maybe this is because the characters don’t register as very real in Pearl’s novel. Even though there’s plenty of drama, there’s love and more, you don’t care about what happens to the characters – you care about whether Osgood finds the last six installments or not but not if he gets Rebecca. Also, the parts of the story that take place in India seem like it belonged in another book. Yes, it involves Dickens’ son and opium, and yes, Frank Dickens has been taught something by his father that might come in handy but it didn’t all come together. The stories don’t connect enough.

There’s no doubt that Pearl has done a lot of research for this book. Dickens feels real, the time and world feels real – but most of the other characters seem like little more than cardboard cut-outs. It feels like Pearl has all this knowledge and done all this research, but somehow he never really gets it to work for this story.

Dickens never wrote more than the first six installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood – or at least it has never been published or found. These last six installments are kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. It’s just a legend but it has much more power as a legend than if it was reality. If Loch Ness suddenly was found, once the initial fuss was over, it would just be some big animal in a lake in Scotland. But as it is now, it holds the power of our imagination. And so do the missing parts of Dickens’ last novel.

‘A new Dickens novel is a new Dickens novel – as remarkable as that is. Yet an unfinished Dickens novel is a mystery in itself.’ (p. 349)

  • Title: The Last Dickens
  • Author: Matthew Pearl
  • Publisher: Harvill Secker
  • Year: 2009
  • Pages: 358 pages
  • Source: Library
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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