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I may have my timeframe all wrong, but it feels like ever since the Da Vinci Code phenomenon took off writers seem to have more freedom to take liberties with historical figures and events. So far I've come across novels creating wondrous intrigues from extracts of real life incidents of such history superstars as Isaac Netwon, William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud to name but a few and for my sins I've always found them to be highly enjoyable, if not ludicrously speculative.
So when I came across The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl I was sure I would be onto a winner - if not through enlightening historical discovery then at the very least through some high quality entertainment.
The year is 1870, Boston, USA. It's a tricky time to be in the publishing business - none more so than for Fields, Osgood & Co. With Harpers, a faceless publishing firm snapping at their heels and book pirates known as the Bookaneers prowling round the docks stealing unpublished manuscripts before they arrive at their intended destination no novel is safe. For Fields, Osgood & Co. much relies on the popularity of none other than Charles Dickens to keep them afloat.
But then the unthinkable happens, the great man is struck down with a stroke and dies midway through his latest and arguably most compelling story yet - The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With only half the novel given over to Fields, Osgood & Co. for publishing the firms' prospects of survival hangs by a thread.
If they can find a way to uncover what Dickens' intentions for his novel were they may be able to keep the firm alive, so James Osgood (a partner in the firm) and his book-keeper Rebecca Sand set sail to England to dig about in the life of Charles Dickens. But they are not the only ones interested in finding out the truth of the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood...and these people will stop at nothing to hinder them. Can they stay alive long enough to uncover the truth and save the firm?
The Last Dickens is actually divided into three main subplots with concurrent stories involving Osgood's quest and an investigation into opium thievery by Charles Dickens' son Frank whilst serving in India all set in 1870, as well as a look three years in the past in 1867 during Charles Dickens' travels to America. The great thing about this story is that it is based upon a mixture of genuine real-life events that occurred in Dickens' life and the complete artistic freedom from Matthew Pearl to create a plausible, if somewhat highly dramatic version of possible events that, whilst being obviously fictitious, are fun to believe as true...at least for as long as your inner sense of escapism lasts.
These individual stories are all interwoven very neatly to avoid any confusion, although the story around Dickens' son Frank does seem to have little bearing on the ones surrounding the quest for the truth about Edwin Drood. Whilst it is an intriguing diversion and an interesting look at the troubles for the English police serving in India back in the late 19th Century, the novel as a whole would not really lose anything in my opinion if this subplot had not been included and it always, for me, felt a bit odd whenever the flow of the main story was interrupted by a return to it.
Matthew Pearl has very easy to read writing style which allows the story to flow in a smooth and fast paced way. He creates a wonderfully vivid view of Victorian times in both the dangerous worlds of Boston, USA and India as well as the gloomy streets of London made all the more believable by incorporating real-life characters (beyond Charles Dickens) such as James Osgood and Charles Dickens' children as well as his entourage during his American travels.
Another great aspect to his writing is the clear amount of research that went into it, by basing his characterisation of Dickens on actually letters and newspapers Pearl was able to create the events (such as Dickens' trip to the US and his famous train crash) as well as the actual personality and mannerisms of Dickens as accurately as possible. In this way it truly felt like, as the reader, we were thoroughly immersed in the mystery (which still remains unsolved today) of what Dickens' intentions were for his ill-fated last novel.
Not only did Pearl display adept skill at characterising Dickens, he also created a great range of characters (some based upon real-life ones and some invented solely for the story) and was able to quickly and subtly drop in the crucial details of the backgrounds for the main characters without detouring away from the main stories to do it. Both James Osgood and Rebecca Sand were extremely likeable (always important for any main protagonist), and Pearl was able to create a particularly chilling and scary character of a Parsee (a member of a monotheistic sect of Zoroastrian origin) named Herman who managed to instil fear into anyone familiar with his name by reputation alone.
By have such defined and strong characters, Pearl was able to create a truly thrilling and exhilarating ride, by whetting our appetites with tantalising little clues to solving the mystery of Edwin Drood and placing our protagonists in mortal peril. As a brilliant combination of historical intrigue based around fact and thrilling fiction writing, The Last Dickens is and intelligent and well crafted novel perfect for anyone that loves the new breed of conspiracy theory / historical fact novels littering bookstore shelves or even just people that love a good thriller.