'The Last Dickens' by Matthew Pearl
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It's the ultimate cliffhanger. Charles Dickens was six installments into his 12-part serial "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" when he died in 1870. The ink was barely dry on that chapter of his "curious and new" tale of suspense when speculation began about its intended ending. One hundred thirty-nine years later, the mystery still intrigues.
First, Dan Simmons in "Drood" and now Matthew Pearl in "The Last Dickens" take up the pen of the Victorian master to create their own spin on the mystery for a new generation.
Random House ($25)
Pearl's tale begins in Bengal, India, with the theft of opium and a tense, mumbled reference to "Dickens."
Seems the name is on everyone's lips. In fast-growing 19th-century America, a powerful publishing industry swirls with thievery, author poaching, "bookaneers" (literary pickpockets) and copyright anarchy.
Fields, Osgood and Co., a Boston publishing house, is the only authorized American publisher of Dickens' works. Daniel Sands, a young clerk sent to the docks to pick up the sixth installment of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," is pursued and mortally wounded by a menacing stranger.
The mark of the hypodermic needle in his arm leads police to believe he is an opium user. The pages he was sent to retrieve have vanished.
With Dickens' death and their investment in the novel threatened, James Osgood, junior partner in the firm, and his young bookkeeper, Rebecca Sands (Daniel's grieving sister), set off for London and the Dickens estate at Gadshill, to search for fragments, correspondence and memorandums to discover how the author intended to finish the work.
In this ancient country town of Rochester, inspiration for various novels by Dickens seems rife: here a Dorrit, there a Barnaby.
Mindful that Dickens drew inspiration from the people and community he knew well, the author turns over old stones in an effort to discover the fate of "Eddie Drood."
Could the character have roots in the story of Edward Trood, the real son of the local innkeeper?
Did Dickens attempt to solve an actual murder mystery?
The search for new clues leads Osgood, as it did Wilkie Collins in "Drood," into the dangerous opium dens of London, and a desperate struggle with a dark stranger with a dangerous and deadly cane, eager to keep the secret of Edwin Drood well-buried.
Woven into the tale is a flashback to Dickens' five-month American reading tour, 1867-68, arranged by Fields and Osgood. Dickens recited, revised and reconstructed his popular tales with theatrical aplomb to sold-out theaters.
Snatches of historical trivia bring life to the character of Dickens, the "Great Enchanter," besieged by teeming U.S. fans, pursued by a real-life female stalker and plagued by scheming tax collectors.
In a creative turn that borrows from Edgar Allan Poe, Pearl gives us good reason to believe that perhaps the six existing chapters of Drood are not the beginning of the tale, but the final chapters.
And, just possibly, the six undiscovered segments may have some root in America.
The yarn twists and turns through London, India and Boston and the book and the opium trades, as the intrepid publisher and his assistant search for clues to the half-finished book. Could they, at last, reveal Dickens' true intentions?
Or, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ruminates to Osgood, his publisher, "I sometimes think ... that all proper books are unfinished. Each reader will imagine his or her ideal ending for it." And the speculation continues.
First Published April 12, 2009 12:00 am