Charles Dickens was the type of author who "even those who never in their life read any novels, would read his." His stories have endured the test of time since the mid-1800s. As THE LAST DICKENS opens, the latest story from the novelist's pen was eagerly awaited by the public. Published as a serial, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD kept people hanging until the next installment. But when he died with it unfinished, it left readers in a frenzy to know what he intended. Had Edwin Drood survived in the end, or would his body be found somewhere?
In 1870, the year of Dickens's death, Boston publishers Fields, Osgood & Co. had the only American rights to print the works of Charles Dickens. Often, that legal right meant very little back then, since, whenever a publisher expected a manuscript, literary thieves called bookaneers would hang around the docks or roam the streets, ready to pilfer whatever they could get their hands on. Even at the public readings, these bookaneers, having schooled themselves at shorthand, would steal the words right from Dickens's mouth.
So it was that Daniel Sand, a delivery boy from Fields & Osgood, ended up being chased down by such a thief. Young Daniel was a trusted employee when he died, leaving his sister Rebecca, a bookkeeper at the publishing house, deep in mourning. For James Osgood, Daniel had also been a promising lad, one he held out much hope for, so the stories of drug use playing a part in his death hits Osgood hard. Barely able to believe it, he goes in search of the truth. And along with his search for what really happened to Daniel, he hopes to find more of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD, praying with great fervor that Dickens had left new chapters, or at least some notes. Anything.
Having exhausted his few leads in Boston, Osgood's quest takes him across the seas to England, where he secures a room in the Falstaff Inn across the road from the gates to Gadshall Place, Dickens's estate. He can't help but wonder: Did Charles Dickens glean ideas for his stories here in the English countryside? Could he have written them based on events of the day, things he read about, people he encountered?
The streets of London turn unkind to Osgood. He finds himself facing great peril, realizing too late that he may have underestimated the danger he has gotten into. But he worries less for his personal safety than for Rebecca's, for she has accompanied him on his trip as his assistant. She has also winnowed her way into his heart, whether he wishes to acknowledge it or not. Osgood must keep a clear head and stay focused on his mission, for the shady characters who seem to be following him have little value for lives other than their own. As it becomes apparent that Dickens likely stashed more of Edwin Drood somewhere, the tension ratchets up to a fever pitch and the Americans must run for their lives.
Matthew Pearl, the internationally bestselling author of THE DANTE CLUB and THE POE SHADOW, brings Charles Dickens to life as wholly as Dickens brought Tiny Tim to life. Fans of the famous writer will rejoice in the wealth of life details and trivia along with the incredible period detail. THE LAST DICKENS is truly a history lesson going hand in hand with a juicy mystery, as entertaining as it is educational. You can't help but come away with the highly satisfying feeling that you rubbed shoulders with literary giants.
--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers