The Last Bookaneer
Review by: Mark Palm
Before films, before television, before pop music, there were books, and writers. There are famous writers now, but the level of fame that could be reached by a popular writer in the nineteenth century is almost beyond our imagining. After killing off Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan-Doyle was called “the most-hated man in London” by fans who wore mourning clothes, when Charles Dickens died mourners paraded passed his grave for three days, and during this time fans frequently paid top-dollar to see authors read their works in sold-out theaters. The latter was important to writers, because many had more fame than fortune. Lax or non-existent copyright laws made it astonishingly easy for publishers to pirate an author’s works. Readers got cheap books, publisher’s got rich, and the writers...well they became famous, but they didn’t earn a penny.
This phenomena is the starting point for Matthew Pearl’s latest novel The Last Bookaneer. I got a kick out of the title, but the title is just the start. For the last decade or so Mr. Pearl has been a master of the literary historical thriller, and his latest is no exception.
Near the end of the nineteenth century Pen Davenport is the most infamous bookaneer in the world. He will go anywhere and do almost anything to get his hands on the most wanted, and newest manuscripts. Soon an international treaty will be signed, and the bookaneers will be needed no more. For his last heist, Davenport decides to travel across the South Pacific, where a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors to finish what many believe will be his greatest masterpiece. For the first time he will not be working alone, as he decides to include, or kidnap, depending on your point of view, the easy-going book-seller Edgar Fergins, to record this final adventure. Unfortunately for them, Davenport’s greatest rival, the fiendish Belial is also after Stevenson’s manuscript. The rest of the book is a smart and thrilling battle of wits as the two vie for literary treasure amid social and political upheaval in the wilds of Samoa.
The Last Bookaneer is more than just a clever literary thriller. Without stopping to lecture Mr. Pearl manages to touch upon the nature of creativity, and gives his bookaneers a surprising amount of depth and complexity to their philosophies and lives. I was particularly moved by Kitten, a bookaneer who is also the love of Davenport’s life. Her story, and her character were so strong and moving that I wanted more. Tie it all up with an surprising and satisfying ending and you have a novel worthy of Stevenson himself.