Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A literary thriller

What if Charles Dickens actually did write the ending of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood? And what if that piece of fiction was based on fact and somebody didn't want that truth revealed? Matthew Pearl takes these "what ifs" and a few others and creates his own exciting blend of truth and imagination in his 2009 novel The Last Dickens.

When Charles Dickens dies in 1870, he leaves his last novel only half-finished. Because the first six monthly installments have already been printed, his readers are eager to learn how the story ends. James Osgood, his American publisher, sets off to England to find, if not an actual manuscript, then at least clues to what Dickens intended. It soon becomes apparent that somebody much more ruthless is trying to beat him to it.

Dickens himself appears in an extended flashback about his 1867 visit to America. We are given a glimpse at the kind of superstar Dickens was in his day. This American tour, which some people believe may have exhausted the author to the point that it contributed to his early death, turns out to play a key role in the resolution of Pearl's plot.

Many of Pearl's characters, including Osgood himself, were real people, and many of the events described really happened. All this helps give Pearl's inventions the ring of truth.

For those of us who enjoy mysteries and thrillers in the literary world (such as The Book of Air and Shadows and The Bookman's Wake),  The Last Dickens is among the best.

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