Book Review: 'The Last Dickens' by Matthew Pearl

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By Anna Mundow
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 4, 2009


By Matthew Pearl

Random House. 386 pp. $25

Thanks to a subspecies of the historical novel -- the historical literary thriller -- we are no longer surprised when we find Emerson or Longfellow dodging bullets in an adventure novel or a lost manuscript causing murder and mayhem. In his new novel, "The Last Dickens," Matthew Pearl takes such liberties gleefully and, for the most part, triumphantly. Not only that, the author of "The Poe Shadow" and "The Dante Club" here creates his own Dickens story with a plot that revolves around a real Dickens novel.

Pearl is a clever writer with a taste for Escher-like contortions, but he is also a cunning entertainer who knows how to hold and not simply dazzle readers. That is clear from the opening chapter, in which we hear not of Charles Dickens but of his son, Frank, who in 1870, the year of his father's death, is a superintendent in the Bengal Mounted Police. Two of the younger Dickens's subordinates are tracking an opium thief when their mission goes awry. One fears his superior's wrath; the other simply fumes. "Turner's neck had become stiff and veiny at the sound of that particular name: Dickens. As though the word had been rotting deep inside him and now crawled back up his throat."

We want to know more -- and we will -- but Pearl transports us abruptly from India to Boston, where the Dickens name is not reviled but venerated. Every American, it seems, from the aristocrat to the factory worker, adores the dead writer and devours his work. Dickens's publishers, on the other hand, know "The Chief" to be their life preserver; and in the dark year of 1870, the noble partnership of Fields and Osgood anxiously awaits the arrival from England of the latest installment of "Edwin Drood," the novel Dickens was working on when he died.

Rival publishers, too, are on the lookout, and when the messenger carrying the manuscript is killed, young James Osgood sets out not only to find the purloined chapter but also to unearth any clues as to how Dickens intended to finish the novel. He must sail for England accompanied by his assistant, the firm's bookkeeper, who is also a lovely young widow. We are on familiar romantic ground and, sure enough, our hero and heroine exchange shy glances as they encounter exotic villains, lost souls, misfits, lawmen and literary sharks.

At the Dickens house in Kent, they meet not only the writer's family but also villagers on whom many Dickens characters, including Edwin Drood, were based. These chapters -- along with carefully rendered depictions of the writer's American tour -- vividly conjure up Dickens the man and the artist.

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. Indeed, one of these, an addict, provides the novel's most haunting image. "He had seen a surgeon on the Union side," Rogers recalls of his Civil War experience, "riding on his horse and pouring liquid morphine into his hand. He would then hold out his hand and the soldiers would line up and lick his glove. . . . [Rogers] despised that proud expression of power he remembered on the face of the surgeon and felt himself its victim."

Opium is at the core of "The Last Dickens" and of the "Edwin Drood" manuscript that Osgood fleetingly possesses. Yet Pearl, unlike Dan Simmons in his bloated novel "Drood," conveys the drug's potency in scenes that are shocking but never outlandish. Opium also deftly connects the main plot to the skullduggery in India involving Frank Dickens.

The denouement fizzles when the novel's chief villain, having trapped his victims, insists on explaining himself and all that has gone before. It would be churlish, however, to fault "The Last Dickens" for ending, as any rollicking entertainment should, with thundering carriages, cracking pistols and the dreadful truth revealed.

Mundow is a literary columnist for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.

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