Matthew Pearl’s first novel, The Dante Club (2003), surprised critics with its erudite blending of history and mystery in a tale of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and post-Civil War Boston. In his second novel, The Poe Shadow (2006), Pearl re-created Edgar Allan Poe and life in mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore in a second critic-wowing and New York Times best-selling historical thriller. And in his third and newest novel, The Last Dickens, Pearl manages to keep his momentum alive in yet another smartly written, intricately detailed, and impressively researched tale, this time of Charles Dickens’s unexpected demise in 1870 and the novel that he left half-finished.
The Last Dickens opens when Dickens has just died and Daniel Sands, a clerk for the struggling publishing company Fields, Osgood & Co., has been fatally struck by a Boston bus. In Sands’s hands are the most recent installments of Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When bystanders call for a doctor as Sands lies dying in the middle of Dock Square, lawyer Sylvanus Bendall hovers over the young man to hear his last words and remove the bundle of papers from his hand. Bendall unties the papers and soon realizes the value of what he holds; a few short chapters later, Bendall has been murdered by a mysterious stranger who wields a gilded walking stick:
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 walking stick appears at sometimes unexpected moments throughout the novel—in darkened alleyways, in smoke-filled opium dens, on a steamship bound for Liverpool—and invariably it is an instrument of gruesome murder. We learn the name of the man who wields the stick early in the novel, Herman, but it takes several hundred pages to unravel the details of why Herman has such a murderous interest in the final installments of Dickens’s last novel and to discover the identity of the mastermind behind his violence.
Soon after the deaths of both Dickens and Sands, the publishers at Fields, Osgood & Co. determine that if they retain exclusive rights to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it could mean the difference between a successful publishing company and succumbing to their chief New York rival, Harper & Brothers. They already have the first three installments. As for the remaining three, “Perhaps he even wrote more before his death that he did not have the chance to hand over to his publisher—it may be sitting in some locked drawer while his family is crying out their eyes and putting on mourning clothes,” surmises senior partner J. T. Fields.
And so junior partner James Ripley Osgood and his widowed bookkeeper, Rebecca Sands, Daniel Sands’s sister, embark on a grand search for Dickens’s remaining pages. The search, of course, is an elaborate entanglement that begins on their England-bound steamer and leads them from the Dickens family home to a wealthy London auction to the bubbling offal filling the brick sewers beneath London as a sewer hunter pokes with his long iron pole in search of treasures.
The novel is peppered with chapters that skip overseas to Bengal, India, where Francis Dickens, Charles’s son, and his fellow British officers keep tabs on the opium market. And on several occasions, Pearl draws us back in time to Dickens’s American cross-country book tour a few years prior to his death. Dickens himself plays an intriguing and presumably true-to-life role in the novel, with a heart for the downtrodden and an underlying irritation with all things American.
Perhaps some of Pearl’s most inspired writing comes when his characters speak of the beauty of literary creation. Consider, for example, a moment when Osgood believes he has found the pages he seeks:
“This is it,” Osgood said with awe of the latter object, sitting on the dusty chair. “The first six installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in his own hand, with corrections from the printer in the margins.” He gently fingered the edges of the pages. Dickens’s handwriting, not always neat, was strong and dynamic. It did not seem to be written to be read by anyone other than the writer—printers and compositors be damned. Usually when Osgood saw the working space of one of his authors, the revelation was purely mechanical, like visiting the dusty floor of a factory. It had become too common, in fact, that when he finally met an author he had held in high esteem, the result was disappointment in the ordinariness of the person behind the words. But with Dickens there had always been a magical feeling, as though Osgood were not the seasoned publisher of Boston but once again a college lad from Maine or that shop boy on his first day in the Old Corner in an India rubber apron streaked with ink. To this day, even with Dickens gone, he was still excited to be Dickens’s publisher.
For all the intelligence of this carefully crafted historical mystery, Pearl too frequently slips into language that is merely titillating and hardly informs the depth of the plot or the character at hand. As the novel edges toward its close, for example, we have escalating groans and towers of flames and sudden plunging falls and, amidst it all, the revelation of a love interest in which the woman is able to, for a moment, “[lose] all her terror and glow.” Pearl also allows at least two characters to admit to entirely different identities as the novel draws toward its climax; surely mystery buffs will find these revelations mildly deceptive when the seeds of the best laid mysteries are planted subtly but decisively in the novel’s earliest pages.
Apparently Matthew Pearl is not an author to slide into a second- or third-novel slump. The Last Dickens dazzles with its historical intrigue and sheer intricacy of plot, much like Pearl’s first two novels, placing Pearl firmly at the forefront of the genre of historical mystery thrillers.
About the Reviewer
Jennie A. Camp holds a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Denver and an MFA in fiction writing from Colorado State University. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, Western American Literature, and the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, among other publications. She lives in Platteville, Colorado, with her husband and five children.