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A Novel

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On Sale: March 17, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-858-4
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In his most enthralling novel yet, the critically acclaimed author Matthew Pearl reopens one of literary history’s greatest mysteries. The Last Dickens is a tale filled with the dazzling twists and turns, the unerring period details, and the meticulous research that thrilled readers of the bestsellers The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.

Boston, 1870. When news of Charles Dickens’s untimely death reaches the office of his struggling American publisher, Fields & Osgood, partner James Osgood sends his trusted clerk Daniel Sand to await the arrival of Dickens’s unfinished novel. But when Daniel’s body is discovered by the docks and the manuscript is nowhere to be found, Osgood must embark on a transatlantic quest to unearth the novel that he hopes will save his venerable business and reveal Daniel’s killer.

Danger and intrigue abound on the journey to England, for which Osgood has chosen Rebecca Sand, Daniel’s older sister, to assist him. As they attempt to uncover Dickens’s final mystery, Osgood and Rebecca find themselves racing the clock through a dangerous web of literary lions and drug dealers, sadistic thugs and blue bloods, and competing members of Dickens’s inner circle. They soon realize that understanding Dickens’s lost ending is a matter of life and death, and the hidden key to stopping a murderous mastermind.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One


Bengal, India, June 1870

Neither of the young mounted policemen fancied these subdivisions of the Bagirhaut province. Neither of them fancied jungles where all manner of things could happen unprovoked, unseen, as they had a few years before when a poor lieutenant was stripped, clubbed, and drowned in the river for trying to collect licensing taxes.

The officers clamped the heels of their boots tighter into their horses’ flanks. Not to say they were scared—only careful.

“You must be careful always,” said Turner to Mason as they ducked the low branches and vines. “Be assured, the natives in India do not value life. Not even as the poorest Englishman does.”

The younger of the two policemen, Mason, nodded thoughtfully at the words of his impressive partner, who was nearly twenty-five years old, who had two brothers also come from England to be in Indian Civil Service, and who had fought the Indian rebellion a few years before. He was an expert if ever one was.

“Perhaps we should have come with more men, sir.”

“Well, that’s pretty! More men, Mason? We shan’t need any more than our two heads between us to take in a few ragged dacoits. Remember, a high-mettled horse stands not for hedge nor ditch.”

When Mason had arrived in Bengal from Liverpool for his new post, he accepted Turner’s offer to “chum,” pooling incomes and living expenses and passing their free time in billiards or croquet. Mason, at eighteen, was thankful for counsel from such an experienced man in the ranks of the Bengal police. Turner could list places a policeman ought never to ride alone because of the Coles, the Santhals, the Assamee, the Kookies, and the hill tribes in the frontiers. Some of the criminal gangs among the tribes were dacoits, thieves; others, warned Turner, carried axes and wanted English heads. “The natives of India value life only as far as they can kill when doing so,” was another Turner proverb.

Fortunately, they were not hunting out that sort of bloodthirsty gang in these wasting temperatures this morning. Instead they were investigating a plain, brazen robbery. The day before, a long train of twenty or thirty bullock carts had been hit with a shower of stones and rocks. In the chaos, dacoits holding torches tipped over the carts and fled with valuable chests from the convoy. When intelligence of the theft reached the police station, Turner had gone to their supervisor’s desk to volunteer himself and Mason, and their commander had sent them to question a known receiver of stolen goods.

Now, as the terrain thinned, they neared the small thatched house on the creek. A dwindling column of smoke hovered above the mud chimney. Mason gripped the sword at his belt. Every two men in the Bengal police were assigned one sword and one light carbine rifle, and Turner had naturally claimed the rifle.

“Mason,” he said with a slight smile in his voice after noticing the anxious look on his partner’s face. “You are green, aren’t you? It is highly likely they have unloaded the goods and fled already. Perhaps for the mountains, where our elaka—that is like ‘jurisdiction,’ Mason—where our elaka does not extend. No matter, really, when captured, they lie and say they are innocent peasants until the corrupt darkie magistrates release them. What do you say to going tiger shooting upon some elephants?”

“Turner!” Mason whispered, just then, interrupting his partner.

They were coming upon the thatched-roof house where a bright red horse was tied to a post (the natives in these provinces often painted their horses unnatural colors). A slight rustle at the house drew their eyes to a pair of men fitting the description of two of the thieves. One of them held a torch. They were arguing.

Turner signaled Mason to stay quiet. “The one on the right, it’s Narain,” he whispered and pointed. Narain was a known opium thief against whom several attempts at conviction had failed.

The opium poppy was cultivated in Bengal and refined there under English control, after which the colonial government sold the drug at auction to opium traders from England, America, and other nations. From there, the traders would transport the opium for sale to China, where it was illegal but still in great demand. The trade was enormously profitable for the British government.

Dismounting, Turner and Mason split up and approached the thieves from two sides. As Mason crept through the bushes from around the back, he could not help but think about their good fortune: not only that two of the thieves were still at the suspected ?confederate’s house but also that their argument was serving as distraction.

As Mason made his way around the thick shrubbery he jumped out at Turner’s signal and displayed his sword at the surprised Narain, who put up two trembling hands and lay flat on the ground. Meanwhile the other thief had pushed Turner down and dashed into the dense trees. Turner staggered to his feet, aimed his rifle, and shot. He fired a wild second shot into the jungle.

They tied the prisoner and traced the fugitive’s path but soon lost the trail. While searching up and down the curve of the rough creek, Turner lunged at something on the ground. Upon reaching the spot, Mason saw with great pride in his chum that Turner had bludgeoned a cobra with his carbine. But the cobra was not dead and it rose up again as Mason approached and tried to strike. Such was the peril of the Bengalee jungle.

Abandoning the hunt for the other thief, they returned to the spot where they’d left Narain tied to a tree and freed him, leading him as they took the horses they’d borrowed back to the police outpost. There, they boarded the train with their prisoner in tow to bring Narain to the district of their station house.

“Get some sleep,” Turner said to Mason with a brotherly care. “You look worn out. I can guard the dacoit.”

“Thank you, Turner,” said Mason gratefully.

The eventful morning had been exhausting. Mason found an empty row of seats and covered his face with his hat. Before long he fell into a deep sleep beneath the rattling window, where a slow breeze made the compartment nearly tolerable. He woke to a horrible echoing scream—the kind that lived sometimes in his nightmares of Bengal’s jungles.

When he shook himself into sensibility he saw Turner standing alone staring out the window.

“Where’s the prisoner?” Mason cried.

“I don’t know!” Turner shouted, a wild glint in his eyes. “I looked the other way for a moment, and Narain must have thrown himself out the window!”

They pulled the alarm for the train to stop. Mason and Turner, with the help of an Indian railway policeman, searched along the rocks and found Narain’s crushed and bloody body. His head had been smashed open at impact. His hands were still tied together with wire.

Solemnly, Mason and Turner abandoned the body and reboarded the train. The young English officers were silent the remaining train ride to the station house, except for some unmusical humming by Turner. They had almost reached the terminal when Turner posed a question.

“Answer me this, Mason. Why did you enroll in the mounted police?”

Mason tried to think of a good answer but was too troubled. “To raise a little dust, I suppose. We all want to make some noise in the world.”

“Stuff!” said Turner. “Never lose sight of the true blessings of public service. Each one of us is here to turn out a better civilization in the end, and for that reason alone.”

“Turner, about what happened today . . .” The younger man’s face was white.

“What’s wrong?” Turner demanded. “Luck was with us. That cobra might have done us both in.”

“Narain . . . the suspected dacoit. Well, shouldn’t we, I mean, to collect up the names and statements of the passengers for our diaries so that if there is any kind of inquiry . . .”

“Suspected? Guilty, you meant. Never mind, Mason. We’ll send one of the native men.”

“But, won’t we, if Dickens, I mean . . .”

“What mumbling! You oughtn’t chew your words.”

“Sir,” the younger officer enunciated forcefully, “considering for a moment Dickens—”

“Mason, that’s enough! Can’t you see I’m tired?” Turner hissed.

“Sir,” Mason said, nodding.

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.
Matthew Pearl|Author Q&A

About Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl - The Last Dickens

Photo © Beth Kelly

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens. He is the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales.

Author Q&A

A Conversation Between Matthew Pearl and James Ripley Osgood


James Ripley Osgood: It’s high time someone told the story behind our publication of Mr. Dickens’s final book. Of course, for reasons of propriety I couldn’t do it myself. What gave you the idea to write this book?

 Matthew Pearl: I’ve found that writing one book tends to generate another. When I was doing background research on nineteenthcentury detective fiction for my first novel, The Dante Club, my attention was directed back to one of my early interests, Edgar Allan Poe, because of his innovations in that genre. That led to the writing of my second novel, The Poe Shadow, during which I found myself examining Poe’s one meeting with Charles Dickens. They didn’t get along that well. 

JRO: Oh, nobody got on well with poor Eddie! 

MP: That’s how it seems. Well, reading about that meeting–and the fact that Dickens and Poe discussed mystery writing–planted the idea in my mind to think about Dickens and mystery together, which of course led me to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens’s famous last work. As I developed my ideas for a story, there seemed to be a natural continuity and evolution from my earlier books. The Dante Club approached its story from the perspective primarily of writers– the prominent poets and writers who formed the club. The Poe Shadow approached its mystery (Poe’s death) from the perspective of a reader. Now, with The Last Dickens, the story takes on another perspective–that of the publisher. Something a little different: a novel with a publisher as the hero! 

JRO: An idea close to my own heart. Especially since you chose to make me that hero! Are there specific links between The Last Dickens and your other novels of literary history? 

MP: They can be read in any order, but I hope that the three novels do communicate with each other for those who choose to read all of them. Many of the themes–the boundary between literature and life, for instance–are present in each of them. Poe becomes an important reference point in The Last Dickens and some characters from The Dante Club reappear in The Last Dickens, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, J. T. Fields, and, well, you. Although the stories are very different, they occupy overlapping worlds of writers and publishers. 

JRO: In my day, some of the important publishers were Harper, Houghton, Little Brown, Macmillans. I suppose everything is different now. 

MP: We still have some of the same names, actually–but publishing is a very different world today. With so much competition and technology, it’s often thought of as “old media,” something outdated, corporate, and passive. For me, one of the exciting elements of The Last Dickens was to revisit the unique cultural battleground of the nineteenth century, when book publishing was cutting edge. The rivalries were fierce and the consequences of publishing important books could be far-reaching, even life-saving or dangerous. Because of incomplete copyright protection, there were even hired agents–sort of literary bounty hunters–seeking to intercept British manuscripts when they arrived in American ports so the pirating publishers could beat their rivals to the market. These characters show up here as the “Bookaneers,” and are favorites of many readers of The Last Dickens who have shared their thoughts with me. 

JRO: I’ve had more than my share of dealings with those scoundrels, and can tell you they are not my favorite people. Your book also includes scenes of Mr. Dickens’s historic visit to the United States. How were you able to gather so much knowledge about the nineteenth century and Mr. Dickens? Even about my sense of humor! 

MP: Research is very important to me in composing my historical novels. There is so much scholarship on Dickens, it can actually be overwhelming. Dickens’s visit to the United States was really remarkable, to see what a megastar, a rock star–sorry, Mr. Osgood– a very celebrated person–he was. I researched his interactions with admirers as well as the personalities of his entourage of assistants and staff. I wanted to invite my readers “behind the scenes” of Charles Dickens’s fame. Dickens’s own letters back home were invaluable for that purpose, as was the memoir of his theatrical manager, George Dolby. The Parker House, where Dickens stayed in Boston, is still in the same location and even has the mirror Dickens used to practice his performances. Delmonico’s restaurant, in lower Manhattan, is where Dickens had his farewell dinner before returning to England. They have a room dedicated to Dickens. 

JRO: That was a fine dinner! Excellent speeches, and I still can taste the Timbales a la Dickens the Delmonico’s chef created for our guest. I suppose that has become a staple of your cuisine? 

MP: Beets and onions fried in batter? Not quite. 

JRO: Shame. 

MP: Actually, we celebrated the publication of The Last Dickens in the Dickens Alcove at Delmonico’s, and they kindly re-created the timbales for us. For those of us who couldn’t be there at the time, the next best thing is to walk in the shadows of history and imagine. 

JRO: You also pick up on a particularly obsessed reader we had to try to keep away from the chief in Boston and New York. 

MP: That was one of those fortuitous moments that historical-fiction writers experience once in a while. I had wanted to prompt my characters and readers to reflect on the nature of celebrity, and particularly the new type of modern celebrity I feel Dickens helped usher in. I decided to create a fictional stalker character. Much to my surprise, as my research continued, I found the “real” stalker–a woman of high society! The incident had been largely lost to history, I suspect, because of her high status. I was grateful to uncover bits and pieces of her story, and it made for a fuller character. 

JRO: In addition to Boston and England, your story even travels all the way to India. How did that come about? 

MP: That was a serious research challenge. Parallel with the changes and expansion of the publishing industry, I also wanted to peek into the development of the opium trade as it took on a form that began to resemble the modern drug trade. Both publishers and drug dealers alike began to recognize the power of selling escapism to the increasingly overstressed populace and the wealth it could create. India was under British control around this time, and one of Charles Dickens’s sons, Francis (who went by Frank), was a supervisor in the mounted police in Bengal. Among his duties would have been to protect the movement of opium to China. Surprisingly, almost no scholarship has been done on Frank’s time in India. I managed to dig up some of the official reports from the British authority that included details of Frank’s work. In addition, I read up on the various memoirs of Dickens’s children to get a sense of what it felt like to be the son of this living legend. When Charles Dickens died, his estate was left in some disarray, which made the status of The Mystery of Edwin Drood all the more important to his immediate circle. 

JRO: Perhaps it’s not remembered in your era what a commotion it caused to have an unfinished Dickens novel. It was chaos! We have to remember that Dickens’s novel was already being read around the world in serialized form. So when he died, readers were right in the middle of the story–of the mystery. People were intensely interested in trying to find an outcome to the story. There were some who tried to publish their own endings. There were also rumors that the rest of the novel was out there somewhere. 

MP: That was my starting point for imagining my novel. I wasn’t very interested in cranking out another theory about how The Mystery of Edwin Drood could have ended. Instead, I wanted to dramatize and mobilize that feeling of urgency and desperation to try to find the ending, and why it is that an unfinished novel, particularly an unfinished Dickens novel, can be so disorienting to readers. 

JRO: Of course, everyone must still read The Mystery of Edwin Drood! That makes all our hard work back in 1870 worth it. 

MP:Well . . . to be perfectly honest, Mr. Osgood, though at one point The Mystery of Edwin Drood was the most written about book in the English language, it’s not one of the more popularly known Dickens novels today. In this age of “on demand,” when we can download a book with a press of a button, maybe we’re too impatient to tackle an unfinished book. But I hope some readers of The Last Dickens who haven’t picked up The Mystery of Edwin Drood before will consider doing so. It’s such a fun read because it forces us–the readers–to take on a participatory role in ending the book. In fact, I’ve edited and written an introduction for a new edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood published by the Modern Library alongside The Last Dickens. We’ve done similar companion editions for The Dante Club (Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno) and The Poe Shadow (The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales). I find that this is a great way for readers, classes, and book clubs who want to keep building on their reading. 

JRO: Thank you for your time. You know, years after working with Mr. Dickens, I came to publish one Mark Twain. We traveled together down the Mississippi. Now, there was an adventure! 

MP:Wait a second. Let me get a notepad. 

Praise

Praise

"A rousing yarn of opium, book pirating, murder most foul, man-on-man biting and other shenanigans—and that's just for starters.[The Last Dickens is] a pleasing whodunit that resolves nicely, bookending Dan Simmons's novel Drood (2009) as an imaginative exercise in what might be called alternative literary history.—Kirkus

"Just what do the seemingly disparate parts of the story have to do with one another? What the publisher becomes embroiled in, in London, is far more complicated than simply manuscript detection. A whole world of life-and-death nefariousness awaits both him and the reader, who will be well rewarded."—Booklist


“Well executed and tightly controlled…extremely clever.”—Los Angeles Times

“Pearl’s plot is ambitious and satisfying, involving a murder and a missing manuscript, the opium trade, the emerging publishing business In New York and Boston, and the predicament of single, divorced women in America in the 19th century. Fans of Dickens will appreciate Pearl’s literary allusions and his thoroughly researched characterizations…”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Strongly recommended… Pearl enriches his story through an in-depth knowledge of Dickens’s career and literary works.”—Library Journal


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. James Osgood must find more information about The Mystery of Edwin Drood to try to save his struggling publishing firm. Do you believe Osgood has additional motivations, whether personal or professional, for his quest?

 2. The character of Rebecca Sand is a young working woman in Boston during the latter half of the nineteenth century. What are some of the interesting and surprising challenges facing her in that time and place that struck you? Do you think she is properly appreciated by Osgood and the firm? 

3. Dickens’s death in 1870 and the incomplete status of his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is at the heart of this book’s story. For those who have read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, how did your knowledge of that novel influence your reading of The Last Dickens? For those who haven’t read it, what did you learn about that final Dickens novel, and would you now go out and read The Mystery of Edwin Drood

4. The Last Dickens refers to the last novel Charles Dickens wrote. Does the title have any other meaning or significance for you? If Fields, Osgood & Co. were publishing Matthew Pearl’s novel and called you into their offices at 124 Tremont Street demanding a title change, what might you suggest? 

5. The novel’s depiction of Charles Dickens is based closely on history. What are some of the facts of Dickens’s life that most interested you that you may not have known before? 

6. There is much consternation and excitement over The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s incomplete status among the characters in this novel, propelling various actions. Other books by famous authors that were never finished include The Aeneid by Virgil, The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Septimius Felton by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lesley Castle by Jane Austen. Some of these have undergone attempts to be “completed” by other writers or family members, as some of the characters in The Last Dickens wish to do with The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Should unfinished books like these have new endings written, or should they be left as fragments? 

7. The novel depicts a dramatically different period in the publishing world. What were some of the things that surprised you about book publishing in the nineteenth century? 

8. In our age of increasingly digital media, how relevant are books today? Discuss whether you think there will be a time when physical books no longer exist. What would be the implications of this? 

9. In the novel, there is a stalker who shadows Charles Dickens’s reading tour in America, which was based on actual incidents. Think of some modern examples of celebrity stalking and discuss the unique characteristics of this type of obsession in and out of this novel. 


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