‘Almost akin to those marionettes you see that have miniature marionettes themselves to control’ – The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

I had heard so much about The Last Dickens prior to it release here in the UK, that I just knew it was a book I had to read and I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Although it falls very much in line with Matthew Pearl’s signature historical fiction, this particular book stood out as it was a mystery within a mystery with a hint of romance and Dicken’s personal life thrown in. It was almost akin to those marionettes you see that have miniature marionettes themselves to control – skilful yet obvious.

The book starts, oddly enough, in Bengal India and sets the platform of Charles’ son Frank who is a police officer helping to contain the opium trafficking but switches swiftly back to Boston to the publishing firm that holds the rights to Dicken’s novels within the states.

Charles Dickens is working on a novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood  in which the publishing house of Fields, Osgood & Co in Boston have decided to serialize the publication in 6 instalments in the newspapers in order to whet the appetite of the readers for the release of the novel. Unfortunately, the laws within the United States do not guarantee full rights to the book as other publishers have the right to change a few ideas, while keeping the same premises of the book and release their own version at a cheaper price – essentially burying any profit for Fields, Osgood & Co.

Whilst working on the last instalment, Charles Dickens dies in his home in England.  This bad news is made worse when the publishing house find the last instalment which was being delivered by boat has gone missing.  At first, the police are made to believe the messenger turned to opiates and probably was distracted from his duty.  But James Osgood was not satisfied as he knew the messenger to be very trustworthy as the messenger was brother to his bookkeeper, Rebecca Sands.

The publishing house realise quickly that they have to do something, and fast to protect their rights to The Mystery of Edwin Drood so Mr Osgood is sent to England to research and find any clues that might help them with the ending that Mr Dickens might have been working on to help eliminate them from the other competing publishing houses in Boston, and indeed New York. However, they are not only competing with reputable publishing houses, they are dealing with the seedy people of the time, that killed for survival in the 1890s and that were ever so descriptive in Charles Dickens books. There are some people that are fully aware of the bounty on the last manuscript and have no qualms killing anyone and everyone to attain the instalment and indeed, have killed when others got too close to answers.

The story flips back and forth from India to England, back to Boston while also flipping back and forth through the years. But you find yourself completely engrossed in the characters within the book that it is not too difficult to understand where Matthew Pearl is taking you and why he chose that format.

For example, the book goes into the last trip Charles Dickens had to the States when touring.  It describes the trial and tribulations that he, as a famous author, had to deal with including people assuming they knew who he was just because they read his books and how some ‘fans’ took their enthusiasm too far. Also on this journey, you were able to ascertain Dickens’ belief to ministered mesmerism as therapy which played a soft, but intrigue part woven throughout the book.

Another thread woven within the book is that of a character named Datchery who at first seems to be an aloof character but is soon realised to be important to James Osgood on his quest in England to find the ending to the last instalment. 

Datchery is taking Osgood on a journey to an unknown destination, when he states ‘Though I am the guide, it is not I who guides us.’  It was at this point that Osgood, looking at the destitution, poverty, sickness and grimness surround the area of England he has never known before that it dawns on him-Dickens had taken this type of walk before.   

Like the geologist, Dickens had built his books by digging up every layer of life underneath the city.  

Any Cop?: The Last Dickens is a fascinating tale of a man who wrote because he understood more than most, a love that was forbidden, the world of publishing, murder, mystery and the fate of a publishing company all twisted into a creative script that only Matthew Pearl could pull off. 

Mar Dixon

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