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The Last Dickens

An intriguing meld of mystery and literary history centered on Dickens’s last novel.

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Anyone who has ever traveled on mass transit has pondered this mystery: Why do buses travel in pods? Where I live you can wait 20 minutes for the No. 39 bus – and when one finally arrives it has the next one on its bumper.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the publishing world. You can wait years for a book on a particular topic – and then two are published almost simultaneously.

Not that that really helps to explain why Matthew Pearl’s The Last Dickens lands on bookstore shelves this week, less than a month after the appearance of Dan Simmon’s “Drood” (reviewed in the Monitor on 2/24/09). Although very different in style, both are meticulously researched mysteries spun around the facts of author Charles Dickens’s final years and his last, unfinished novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

Pearl is already acclaimed as a pro in the quirky field of mysteries grafted onto literary history. “The Dante Club” (2003) imagined that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and James Russell Lowell – at work on a collaborative translation of Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” from Italian into English – must unravel a series of murders with links to Dante’s Inferno. In “The Poe Shadow” (2006) a young lawyer works to untangle the mystery of Edgar Allen Poe’s death.

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