The Last Dickens

An intriguing meld of mystery and literary history centered on Dickens’s last novel.

The Last Dickens; By Matthew Pearl; Random House; 400 pp., $25

Anyone who has ever traveled on mass transit has pondered this mystery: Why do buses travel in pods? Where I live you can wait 20 minutes for the No. 39 bus – and when one finally arrives it has the next one on its bumper.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the publishing world. You can wait years for a book on a particular topic – and then two are published almost simultaneously.

Not that that really helps to explain why Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens lands on bookstore shelves this week, less than a month after the appearance of Dan Simmon’s “Drood” (reviewed in the Monitor on 2/24/09). Although very different in style, both are meticulously researched mysteries spun around the facts of author Charles Dickens’s final years and his last, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Pearl is already acclaimed as a pro in the quirky field of mysteries grafted onto literary history. “The Dante Club” (2003) imagined that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell – at work on a collaborative translation of Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” from Italian into English – must unravel a series of murders with links to Dante’s Inferno. In “The Poe Shadow” (2006) a young lawyer works to untangle the mystery of Edgar Allen Poe’s death.

This time it’s Dickens’s American publisher James R. Osgood (a historical figure) who must solve a mystery. Osgood travels to England after Dickens’s death to see if he can learn something about the ending Dickens had intended for his last work. En route, however, he learns that the story of Dickens’s novel is now entangled with a series of real-life crimes.

One of the pleasures of reading Pearl comes from enjoying the intelligently detailed 19th-century settings he constructs. In “The Last Dickens” – which ranges from Boston to London to Bengal, India – he recreates a world in which there were no international copyright laws, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment loomed as a horrific scandal, and decorous steam elevators eased transit in office buildings. He also gives a contemporary feel to his works by reminding us that the 19th century – in which the drug trade, organized crime, and urban blight loomed large – was less genteel than we tend to imagine. (And “The Last Dickens” gives perspective to Harry Potter mania, by recreating the mile-and-a-half long lines of readers who turned out to see Dickens in the United States and the celebrity frenzy that surrounded his every move.)

On this period-correct stage, Osgood interacts with a series of historic figures (including Dickens himself) and a number of fictional ones. Osgood must not only solve a mystery but must also save his business and find a way to court a lovely, divorced bookkeeper without either scaring her or breaking the law.

One of the pleasures of “The Dante Club” was the interaction among the literati (Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell) as imagined by Pearl. In “The Last Dickens,” Dickens himself appears but has less chance to live and breathe as a character. (There are, however, some small real-life gems scattered here and there, such as Dickens’s  actual rescue of some stranded animals while in the US.)

The story of “The Last Dickens” also lacks some of the urgency of “The Dante Club,” although when the plot pieces fall into place at the end – tying up some seemingly disparate strands – they come together with a very satisfying kind of click.

For readers who enjoy the meld of mystery with literary history, this is a season full of possibility. “Drood” and “The Last Dickens” are books of different flavors. “Drood” features a compelling (and creepy) narrator intent on playing mind games with the reader. “The Last Dickens” works more like a Swiss watch – intricately pieced together and quite rational. But taken together they offer more than 1,000 pages of absorbing reading – and serve as a fitting testament to the thrall in which many of us are still held by the world of the great Victorian novelists.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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