Monday, March 9, 2009

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl to be Released by Random House, Tuesday, March 17, 2009

by Douglas Grudzina

Charles Dickens, arguably the best-known author in the English language, died on June 9, 1870. The evening before, mere hours before he collapsed with a stroke, he completed the sixth installment of what was to be a twelve-installment novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He left no notes, no outline, no preliminary drafts of the remaining six installments. He confided his plans regarding how he intended to end his mystery to no one.

He did offer to reveal the ending to Queen Victoria, but she declined.

The first five installments had already been published; the sixth would be in print soon; and readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were clamoring to know what had happened to the missing Edwin Drood. Had his uncle, the opium-addicted choirmaster killed him out of jealousy? Had he placed himself in hiding to avoid an unwanted marriage?

No one knew, and literary pirates and plagiarists were more than willing to provide answers and realize hefty profits from “the Chief’s” death.

This is the background against which Matthew Pearl’s third novel, The Last Dickens, is set. Trying to save his business and solve the brutal murder of one of his employees, Dickens’s American publisher travels to England in search of any clue to the “authentic” end of Dickens’s last work. The search takes him deep into London’s underbelly, the world Dickens exposed so graphically in so many of his novels, and the world which he himself was rumored to have explored in his final year while creating his final work.

The Last Dickens comes out in hard cover on Tuesday, March 17. It’s a great read, and I’d recommend it to my students for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s a hard-to-put-it-down story of murder, theft, and intrigue; and characters so vividly drawn that sometimes you want to hug them, and sometimes you want to slap them. Then there’s the rich view of the nineteenth-century world that Pearl’s exhaustive and impeccable research provide. Your students will love scenes of Dickens’s fans lining up days before tickets go on sale for the Christmas Eve reading of A Christmas Carol—almost as if Dickens were the Grateful Dead of his day (which, of course, he was.) There’s the almost-brutally-honest view of Dickens the man, who left his family with so many debts that they had to auction off almost all of their possessions to stay out of prison, who was rumored to have had affairs with two of his wife’s sisters, who’d separated from his wife and taken a much-younger mistress in an age that prided itself on propriety and prudery. And there’s the insider’s view of the publishing world, much more cut-throat than cultural.

To accompany the planned 2010 release of the paperback edition of The Last Dickens, Pearl has prepared a new edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which presents a wealth of possibilities to teachers who really want their students to get into the mind of the author. How did Dickens intend to end this book?

Matthew Pearl’s first novel, The Dante Club, is available from our catalogue and on our web site, as is his edition of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation of The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, which lies at the heart of that blood-chilling serial-murder mystery.

And again, The Last Dickens will be available Tuesday, March 17th. It's well worth your taking a look at.

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