In a way, every piece of fiction is a mystery – How is it going to turn out? What will happen to the characters? If the reader doesn’t care, then the author hasn’t succeeded in writing a good book. The author must create a degree of eagerness and anxiety in the reader to keep him (or her) turning the pages. The anxiety in The Last Dickens is ideal for the bibliophile: what happens when we lose the voices that tell us what happens next? It’s June 1870, and Charles Dickens suffers a stroke midway through his serial The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the story a genuine whodunit that will never and hasn’t ever been solved. How will readers cope without knowing how the book ends? And how will Dickens’s American publisher, the financially struggling firm of Fields, Osgood & Company, survive without the profits from his book?
I like to think of this as the third entry in a trilogy. Matthew Pearl’s first novel, The Dante Club blended history and mystery in a story featuring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and post-Civil War Boston. In his second novel, The Poe Shadow, Pearl re-created Edgar Allan Poe and life in mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore. In this novel, he presents a neatly written, meticulously detailed, and meticulously researched tale.
The firm’s junior partner, James Osgood (an historical figure), attempts to solve the real-life mystery that is proving fatal for several characters. The amiable, ordinary Osgood makes a believable man of letters. As a man of action he is an adorable fantasy, given to pedantic lecturing. In his efforts to find Dickens’s document, Osgood places his trust in a shady character to track dangerous clues through the city’s opium dens, he confides to his bookkeeper and sidekick, Rebecca Sand, this explanation: “I thought of consulting with Scotland Yard to secure a police escort, yet it would likely drive away the very man who can guide me. I am a publisher, Miss Sand. I know what it means. It means I must find a way, very often, to believe in people who believe in something else — something I often may not be inclined toward in the least.” He’s more stuffy than swashbuckling, but is able to hold his own with the bad guys.
Unfortunately, Pearl juggles too many narrative threads for a novel this length. He is forced to resort to exposition at inopportune moments, throwing off the pace. The subplot set in India and centered on Dickens’s son Frank, a supervisor in the Bengal Mounted Police with his own interest in the opium trade, is a promising gesture but never pays off. Pearl knows his Dickens, undoubtedly better than many of his readers do, and his focus on the author’s dark late period is valuable to those who would like to know about Dickens, the man. The problem is that by putting “the Chief” in his book (which he does through a series of flashbacks to the author’s final, backbreaking American tour), Pearl introduces a writer he can’t match, on any level. Of course, few writers could.
An intriguing element of the book is the historical struggle among publishers extant at the time; some of which still exist intact, some of which have been altered, and some of which are extinct. Fields, Osgood & Co. know that if they retain exclusive rights to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it could mean the difference between a successful publishing company and capitulating to their chief New York rival, Harper & Brothers. There is also a role for the trade circular that would come to be known as Publishers Weekly.
One of the pleasures of reading Pearl comes from enjoying the skillfully detailed 19th-century settings he constructs. In The Last Dickens, he recreates a world in which there were no international copyright laws, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment loomed, and steam elevators improved travel in office buildings. He also gives a contemporary feel to his works by reminding us that the 19th century in which the drug trade, organized crime, and urban blight loomed large and were less genteel than we tend to imagine.
It’s enticing to think that somewhere in some old, unexamined library or bookstore out there is a pile of missing manuscript pages in Dickens’s hand that would unravel the mystery of Edwin Drood. There have been several attempts by miscellaneous authors over the many years since Dickens’s death to complete the book – in the theater, film, radio, and novel. But none of them have the voice of Dickens himself.
Historical Epilogue for The Last Dickens:
Some facts behind characters and elements of The Last Dickens:
• After Fields’s retirement, James Ripley Osgood thrived for several years. The terrible Boston fire of 1872 destroyed some of the steel plates owned by the publishing firm. The following year, Osgood was forced to sell all three of his magazines. Facing steep financial problems, Osgood agreed to a merger with Houghton & Hurd. Later in life, Osgood moved to England to work for Harper & Bros. as their London agent. He died in 1892 in London, where he is buried.
• After Fields retired, he used his various experiences to write his memoirs of literary figures. He also spoke on the lecture circuit. He died in Boston in 1881 and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
• Fletcher “Major” Harper retired in 1875. He died in 1877 at his home in New York and is buried at Greenwood cemetery. He was the last survivor of the original Harper brothers.
• Following seven years of service in the Bengal police, Francis Dickens continued his chosen profession in North America, receiving an appointment to the North-West Mounted Police in Canada beginning in 1874. Francis participated in several important battles and was promoted to Inspector in 1880. He died in 1886 while traveling in Moline, Illinois, where he is buried.
• Approximately ten years after Dickens’s death, one of Dickens’s sons, Charley, co-wrote a theatrical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with a new ending, which he claimed was in part based on the authority of the information his father had shared with him. The play has to this day never been produced. The manuscript is at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. (Charley was originally depicted as a character in The Last Dickens, but eliminated in a later draft)
• Years after Dickens’s death, a collector discovered a sheaf of his papers in Dickens’s unique shorthand. It was believed the bundle of papers could be the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Turning to Henry Dickens, one of Dickens’s sons, to help decipher, the papers were decoded—but apparently had nothing to do with Drood.
• According to a literary historian in the early twentieth century, James Osgood wrote a manuscript detailing his experiences as a publisher, including extensively about his time with Charles Dickens during the American tour. This manuscript has never been located. Osgood had left it in the possession of A. V. S. Anthony, an engraver, at whose death passed it on to his widow. Tracking their descendants leads to actor Anthony Perkins, whose father was named James Ripley Osgood Perkins after the publisher and who also had a son named Osgood Perkins. If the manuscript still exists, it does not appear to be registered to a library or archive and may still be held somewhere as a private possession (http://www.matthewpearl.com/dickens/epilogue.html).