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The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
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Jan 05, 11

Read in November, 2010

I wanted to like this novel, really I did. I love Dickens's novels and pretty much anything to do with Dickens, and I have an especial soft spot for Drood. But Pearl's novel left me cold. I kept trying to get more involved in the plot's nefarious twists and turns, and to appreciate his trademark authorial touches, including the subtle nod at recent Dickens scholars with a postcolonial lens ... but the novel kept rejecting my attempts at affection. It begins with a premise familiar to anyone who has read The D Case or Dickens's own novel Drood itself : speculation about the lost/unfinished ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Pearl sweeps the reader up in Boston, transplants her to England and (natch) India, obliquely following (1) the American reading tours of an increasingly fatigued Charles Dickens, (2) one of Dickens's sons, stationed in India and who happens to be a highly decorated officer hot on the trail of an opium smuggler, (3) the travails of an independent publisher moonlighting as a literary private detective, and (4) a series of petty or hardened criminals (including a half-Chinese pirate with a golden cane, a few desperate New York journalists, a deranged aristocratic fan in love with Dickens [think Misery] and, of course, the real villains : a soulless rival publishing house. Pearl's solution to the Drood question is interesting, but worked out in a way that feels purely formulaic rather than compelling.

There is so much that could have made this novel really great, and instead it was just so-so. Sorry, Mr. Pearl, but in order to pull off a tour de force of this order, you need to be Dickens himself.
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