I’ve talked before about how I'm not that much of a mystery reader, but when I do pick one up, I seem to have the most luck with historical mysteries. Not only do I find all of the period-specific details fascinating and love when real-life historical figures pop up in the story, but the crimes and murders that occur seem, well, just a little bit less creepy when they’re set years in the past, rather than in present day. The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl, is exactly that kind of historical mystery, revolving around the fictional hunt for the second half of the manuscript of Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The novel follows several different layers of mystery. The primary storyline focuses on James Osgood, Dickens’s publisher in America. Osgood learns of Dickens’s abrupt death from a stroke while his firm is in the middle of publishing Drood in serial form. After his errand boy is murdered and robbed of the latest installment of the manuscript that he’s transporting, Osgood journeys to London to try to track down the missing manuscript and the murderer. Osgood’s mission is broken up with flashbacks describing mysterious occurrences that happened during Dickens’s American tour years earlier, jumps across continents to India, where Dickens’s son is an investigator tracking down an opium thief, and even explores a fourth line storyline about the mysterious life and death of Edward Trood, the trouble-making son of one of Dickens’s neighbors who provided the inspiration for his last novel.
I had previously read and enjoyed one of Pearl’s other novels, The Poe Shadow (as in Edgar Allen). Although I was equally interested in all of the Dickens-related details he covers here, I thought the plot was overly bogged down with all of the separate storylines. Although all of the threads are woven together at the end, it feels somewhat laborious, as if the author had to work just a bit too hard to make it all come together. Narrowing the focus may have made the story flow more easily, and subsequently made me feel more compelled by the novel as a whole. Die-hard mystery fans, or die-hard Dickens fans for that matter, may enjoy this anyway, but I’d recommend the casual mystery reader skip it in favor of The Poe Shadow, or even something like The Alienist.