The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

The Last Dickens is a literary mystery involving a search for the missing manuscript of the final, unfinished Charles Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This book didn’t appeal to me when it was published a couple of years ago because at that time I had only read one Charles Dickens book and didn’t have much interest in reading a historical fiction novel about him. Since then, though, I’ve read a few more of Dickens’ books (including Edwin Drood) and so I thought I would give The Last Dickens a try now.

In 1870, the new Dickens novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is being serialised by his American publisher Field, Osgood & Company, who are based in Boston. When Field and Osgood send their young office clerk, Daniel Sand, to the docks to collect the latest instalment which has been sent from England, Daniel is later found dead under suspicious circumstances. With the shocking news that Dickens has also died and left his novel incomplete, James R Osgood travels to England in search of clues as to how the story may have been going to end. Osgood is accompanied by Daniel Sand’s sister, Rebecca, another employee of the publishing house. Can they uncover the truth about Daniel’s death and at the same time find the remaining chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Just when Osgood and Rebecca’s adventures start to get exciting, the story is interrupted with a very long flashback to Dickens’s American tour several years earlier. Some of this was interesting (it’s such a shame there was no recording equipment in those days as it would have been fascinating to have been able to hear Dickens reading his books on stage to an audience!), but there was a lot of detail that I didn’t think was absolutely necessary and by the time we returned to Rebecca and Osgood the flow of the story had been completely lost. There were also some shorter sections set in India, where Dickens’s son Frank, serving with the Bengal Mounted Police, is on the trail of opium thieves, but I didn’t think this sub-plot really added anything to the book and I admit I didn’t quite understand what was going on.

One aspect of the book I did enjoy was the insight into the American publishing industry in the 19th century, a time when copyright laws appeared to be virtually non-existent. There are some entertaining descriptions of the lengths publishers would go to in order to obtain manuscripts and be the first to publish them.

Another similar book which was released around the same time as this one was Drood by Dan Simmons. I read Drood last year and although I had a couple of problems with that book too, I think I probably enjoyed it more than The Last Dickens. It’s interesting to see how two different authors can use the same historical material to create such very different books.

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14 thoughts on “The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl”

  1. I keep looking at this one in the library, but my copy of Drood is still unread and so I tell myself I must read that one first. 19th century publishing appeals, but I’m less taken with other elements of story so I think I’m probably doing the right thing.

    1. The two books are very different, despite both being about the last years of Charles Dickens, but I did think Drood was the better book. If you only have time to read one of them, I would recommend Drood rather than this one.

  2. I have unread copies of both Edwin Drood and Drood on the TBR shelf, I hope to get to one or both of them during RIP season but I’m not optimistic. I do feel I should actually READ Edwin Drood before tackling the related novels.

    I also found this interesting book called The D Case at the last library sale. It’s translated from Italian and it somehow incorporates the original text with other detective fiction and satire to solve the case, or something like that. It was only $1 and I love books in translation, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Someday.

    1. I think it’s probably a good idea to read Edwin Drood first, so that you don’t come across any spoilers in the related novels. I read it earlier in the year and really enjoyed it, despite it not being finished!

      And I’ve never heard of The D Case but it sounds interesting!

  3. Oh this sounded like it had great potential and then went awry. Why do authors try to throw every little germ of an idea into the mix? – simplicity is better sometimes!

  4. It is a shame this one drifted from what otherwise sounds like a good story. I have read a couple of Dickens novels, my favourite being A Tale of Two Cities. I also read a really interesting illustrated/ pictorial biography of Dickens by JB Priestly that was wonderful.

    1. This could potentially have been a great book, so i was disappointed that I didn’t like it more. And I haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities yet, but hopefully I’ll get to it sometime soon!

  5. I tried to read The Dante Club by the same author a few years back and quit half way through. It wasn’t grabbing me, and I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what was going on. Sounds like maybe that’s this author’s style?

    1. The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow both sound interesting but now that I’ve read this one I don’t think I want to try any more of his books. I don’t like books that leave me feeling confused!

  6. Gosh, this one actually sounds pretty interesting to me. Though I wouldn’t like not knowing what was going on… but bio-fiction is fun. And I hardly know anything about Dickens yet. 🙂

  7. I read Dante Club, which was his first novel and loved it, though it was gruesome at times. I think Pearl has tried to replicate his initial success to no avail. Poe Shadow had mixed reviews, though I still want to read it because I am a fan of Poe. This one I think I’ll pass.

    1. The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow both sound very appealing to me but I think this book has put me off reading more Matthew Pearl! Maybe I should give him a second chance one day.

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