three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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A-The Last DickensMatthew Pearl is best known for his historical literary mysteries, including The Dante Club ( 3 of 5 Stars May/June 2003) and The Poe Shadow ( 2 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2006); The Last Dickens is another example of this genre.

The Story: When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In this fictionalization of the book’s fate, Dickens’s American publisher, James Osgood, is baffled by a series of mysterious deaths—including that of his faithful clerk, who was to receive Dickens’s latest installment of Drood. With his beautiful young bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, Osgood travels from Boston to London to investigate and try to maintain the book’s integrity and his own profits. The action then pans to the opium wars in India, and then back to the novelist’s final American tour in 1867—events filled, throughout, with danger, duplicity, and intrigue.
Random House. 386 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400066565

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] rollicking, exciting, suspenseful, Chinese box of a novel." Sam Coale

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"When opium, mesmerism and depravity begin to seep through Pearl’s pages, however, the novel turns a darker and more interesting shade of red—that of spilled blood, not womanly blushes. Against this background, dubious characters acquire substance and depth." Anna Mundow

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Marjorie Kehe

Independent (UK) 3 of 5 Stars
"Pearl’s research … is often impressive, but he doesn’t have a convincing sense of British contexts, or much of an ear for British idiom. There’s a less than plausible portrait of Frederic Chapman, Dickens’s London publisher." Andrew Taylor

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[Pearl’s] work wears its deep research lightly, combining real-life figures and bookish references with robust prose and storytelling. … Of course, the book’s conclusion can’t be revealed here—though it’s safe to say that Pearl has constructed an ingenious ending to the enduring mystery of the last Dickens." Adam Woog

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"[T]he plot often overreaches, and the reader loses sight of it, particularly in the less successful subplot—the opium wars in Bengal, India, involving Dickens’s son Francis, with which the book confusingly begins. … If his editor had applied a heavy hand to this manuscript and redirected Pearl’s more errant flights of fancy, the result would have been a more cogent, credible, and well-written book." Virginia A. Smith

Times (UK) 1 of 5 Stars
"Take it as a warning. Like [Dan] Brown’s work, this is a book for people who either don’t mind or don’t notice when writing is wincingly bad. … Let the world’s greatest novelist rest in peace." Kate Saunders

Critical Summary

Many critics compared Pearl’s latest effort to Dan Simmons’s recent, lengthy SF novel Drood ( 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2009)—though they are far different beasts. A historical literary mystery filled with real-life figures, The Last Dickens showcases Pearl’s impressive research into the Victorian era—from opium wars in India to publishing house culture. The novel also entertains, with surprising twists that quickly turn sinister. Yet American critics faulted the tangential (and coincidental) subplots, while British reviewers questioned Pearl’s grasp on their culture. For readers interested in Dickens or who want an engaging mystery, however, The Last Dickens is "a fitting testament to the thrall in which many of us are still held by the world of the great Victorian novelists" (Christian Science Monitor).