148. The Last Dickens

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

Pages: 386
Ages: 18+
Finished: Aug. 20, 2009
First Published: mar. 17, 2009 (paperback coming Oct. 6, 2009)
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery, literary thriller
Rating: 3.5/5

First sentence:

Neither of the young mounted policemen fancied these subdivisions of the Bagirhaut province.

Reason for Reading: I'm always interested in Victorian historical fiction plus I've read two other books this year that concerned Charles Dickens: 'Drood' by Dan Simmons and 'Wanting' by Richard Flanagan. Therefore I thought why not add a third to the mix especially since this concentrated on Dickens last novel as did 'Drood'. I received a review copy form Random House Canada.

Comments: Dickens has just died leaving his last book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" only half-finished. But one of the partners of his American publishing house James Osgood is certain he may be able to find clues to Dickens' intentions for the story's ending if he travels to England which leads him into a much deeper, darker and dangerous mystery than he had counted on. The book also flashes back a few years to a plot line that follows Dickens' final book tour of America and the trials and tribulations that accompanied him on that last trip. And finally, the book follows a third less frequent plot line of Frank Dickens, Charles' son, who is an officer stationed in India. The time period being consistent with the recent death of his father.

This is a much researched and historically accurate tale as far as Dickens and his family and acquaintances go. Many small real life incidents of his life are included which adds authenticity to the period. I found the characters and the setting to be spot on with regards to Victorian attitudes and ambiance. While the book is populated fiercely with a motley crew of characters, two do stand out as the main characters and I found both James and Rebecca to be both truly believable and completely compelling. Rebecca never stepped out of her place as a woman of her times but as a divorced woman working as a bookkeeper she took no nonsense from anyone as regards her sex. I loved her stinging, yet witty remarks, that kept her completely within her confines as a Victorian woman.

The plot follows many clues and red herrings sending James and (sometimes) Rebecca all over London's shadier sides and to the East End and finally to the dregs of opium dens and thieves quarters. While certainly an interesting read that did keep me reading, I found the pacing slow. It was a book I could put down and not be in a hurry to pick up again. Not because I wasn't liking it but just that it didn't have that certain intensity to it. The ending does increase in pace and there is a typical high energy rush in the final chapters as the mystery is solved, which is all rather cleverly done on the author's part.

One thing I did find fascinating was the description of the the cut-throat world of American publishing at the time. The underhanded dealings, the nefarious goings on, the blatant disregard for international copyright, and in particular the way in which the Harper Brothers were portrayed. If the beginnings of Harper & Bros. and the characters of the brothers themselves have been portrayed realistically here an historical fiction on their family would be an amazing read.

This book would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a good literary mystery but I also think it will satisfy all the people who did not like 'Drood' by Dan Simmons very much because of the supernatural elements. Now I loved that other book, but for those of you who didn't, I think you'll love 'The Last Dickens' more than I did.

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  1. I'm totally with you on this one. I didn't dislike it and there were parts I thought were really cool, but I was never in a huge hurry to get back to it.


  2. Interesting that you're presenting this as an either/or. I have Drood sitting on the shelf and if it weren't so long I'd dive into it now. This one sounds interesting, too. Didn't realize that Drood relied on supernatural elements, though!

  3. Trish, from the negative reviews I've read of Drood that is what I've found. People didn't realize it has such a heavy supernatural element and all they were looking for was historical fiction so they are disappointed.

    But if you are a Stephen King fan *and* a regular historical fiction fan then Drood is going to be right up your alley by putting both genres together in a highly literary novel.

    The Last Dickens is indeed good, just not as good imho, though I probably would have enjoyed it more had I read it prior to Drood as it covers a lot of the same circumstances in lesser detail but more in an historical mystery genre format.

    So I don't think it needs to be necessarily either/or but I'd say go The Last Dickens then Drood if you want to read both. It will provide a more rewarding reading experience.


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