In Matthew Pearl's splendid novel "The Last Dickens," the duplicitous arch-villain utters this dark paean to opium: "Alcohol makes man into a beast, but opium makes him divine."
The plot of this rollicking, erudite tale unfolds over the years 1867 to 1870 and takes the reader on a riveting journey that courses over three continents. The tenebrous reaches of the nefarious opium trade provides a pivotal theme.
James Ripley Osgood is the likable junior partner of Fields, Osgood & Co., a venerable publishing house in Boston. Dedicated to fine literature, solicitous of their authors, the firm has shepherded into print a respected array of writers such as Emerson, Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. This publishing house has maintained a dignified presence in a field that has spawned its share of mercenaries who place profit above refined literary creations.
The most famous writer of the day, Charles Dickens, has appointed the firm to be his official publisher in the United States. This is a time of no international copyright agreement -- and unauthorized publications by myriad authors abound -- but the trustworthy Fields and Osgood will ensure Dickens an honest return on all sales of his works sold under their rubric.
They had sponsored Dickens' last reading tour of America, a rambunctious five-month endeavor during the winter of 1867-68. Dickens's appearances often sparked fan frenzy and sometimes outright hysteria. "Fields, Osgood & Co. made money on the readings -- 5 percent of gross receipts -- but their real reward for the faith they had shown in Charles Dickens was yet to come. That would come with the publication of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.'"
The as yet unpublished Dickens novel is eagerly anticipated: "This time the wait for a new book had been nearly five years, longer than any other interval between books in the past." Dickens had written to Fields that his latest story would be "very curious and new." One of the characters in Dickens's new story is an opium eater.
After having completed only half of his novel, tragedy strikes. Dickens collapses at his beloved home of Gadshill. "Men and women wept or sat bewildered and silent in the offices as word spread." The beloved author's death is a shock, but Fields and Osgood are intent on publishing what exists of the novel.
A loyal employee of the publishing house, Daniel Sand, is sent on a presumably secretive mission to the Boston docks: "He was to meet the ship from London, where a messenger would hand him -- and only him -- the advance sheets for the fourth, fifth, and sixth installments of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.'"
Shortly after, Daniel is run over by an omnibus and killed. As Daniel is dying in the street, the precious manuscript is grabbed by an unscrupulous onlooker -- a bombastic attorney by the name of Sylvanus Bendall -- who swiftly realizes the importance of the sheaf of papers. No doubt he intends to profit from his theft. The overweening Bendall is unaware that his greed has exposed him to a murky world of violence and international intrigue revolving around the commerce in opium.
Daniel's death and the disappearance of the manuscript set James Osgood on a journey to England in hopes of possibly learning what Dickens intended as an outcome to his novel. He is accompanied by Daniel's demure sister, Rebecca Sand, a bookkeeper with the firm. Beautiful and intelligent, Rebecca is in the process of divorcing her cruel husband, a wasted Civil War veteran. In traveling, Osgood and Rebecca maintain a code of strict propriety. Rebecca's assistance proves invaluable in what becomes not only an uncertain but dangerous quest.
Why should an unfinished novel, even one by the inimitable Dickens, precipitate such seismic and murderous commotion? Could it be that "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is not really a work of fiction but a veiled narrative detailing real and deadly criminal machinations?
Pearl's wonderful book brims with colorful fictional and historical characters. There are the rascally "Bookaneers" who "loiter at the piers to try to intercept popular manuscripts coming from England before they were claimed by the authorized publisher." There is the haughty and ambitious Fletcher Harper of the New York firm of Harper and Brothers who declaims: "Books are to be mere lumber in the future...The bookstores are already filled with empty space, cigar boxes, Indian prints, toys. Toys! Before long there will be more toys than books in this country, and it will matter not who is the author of the new book any more than who is the manufacturer of a new paper doll."
In the end, the mystery of Dickens' last work remains just that. But on coming to the d