Review: The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

On 8 June 1870, Charles Dickens collapsed after a full day of working on his latest serial, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  He never recovered.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood is now one of the most famous unfinished novels in the English language, and it has never been clear how Dickens intended to end the book.

Matthew Pearl’s historical mystery The Last Dickens centers on a search for the ending to Edwin Drood.  James Osgoode is a partner in the Boston publishing firm of Fields, Osgoode & Co., which has paid a handsome sum of money for the rights to be Dickens’s official American publisher.  Fields, Osgoode & Co. is the subject of a takeover attempt from a large New York publishing firm and Osgoode is counting on a healthy profit from Edwin Drood — until Dickens’s death leaves the book unfinished.  Desperately hoping to find the rest of the manuscript, or at least some indication of how it was supposed to end, Osgoode travels to England with Rebecca Sand, one of the firm’s bookkeepers.  The search for Drood‘s conclusion will lead them both into far more danger than they had anticipated.

The idea of searching for the lost ending of Edwin Drood will appeal to anyone who loves nineteenth-century fiction.  Pearl’s novel, unfortunately, does not quite live up to its promising premise.  The Last Dickens moves between several narrative threads. Osgoode’s 1870 search for the ending of Drood forms the main plot, but the novel alternates between that story, an account of Dicken’s 1867 lecture tour of America, and a subplot about Dickens’s son Fred’s life as a British police agent in India.

The three tales never quite manage to cohere.  When the flashback or multiple-narratives structure is most successfully employed — see, for example, Sue Grafton’s U is for Undertowall of the narratives remain parts of a whole and each story is necessary for the novel’s conclusion.  In The Last Dickens, however, each storyline has its own distinct narrative climax, which makes the pacing feel uneven.  Information from Dickens’s 1867 tour does become relevant to Osgoode’s search for Drood, but aside from a few odd coincidences and shared themes, Frank Dickens’s work in India remains almost completely tangential to the other parts of the book.  I finished the book feeling unsatisfied, partly because of the jittery pacing and partly because the main mystery became increasingly implausible and contrived as the novel went on.

Another problem with the book is a lack of engaging main characters.  Osgoode, Rebecca, and Frank Dickens are likeable but not particularly interesting.  Tom Branagan, the Irish porter who is the point-of-view character for the 1867 portions of the book, is much more compelling, but one interesting protagonist out of four isn’t quite the number one would hope for.

I enjoyed large parts of the book–the account of Dickens’s 1867 tour is delightful–but I can’t quite recommend it.  The multiple-narratives structure ends up being distracting rather than illuminating, and the central mystery is contrived at points and not well-paced.  I may give Dan Simmons’s Drood a try instead.

Rating: YMMV

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