The Last Bookaneer
About This Book
Book’a-neer’ (bŏŏk’kå-nēr’), n. a literary pirate; an individual capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers must not have a part in.
London, 1890—Pen Davenport is the most infamous bookaneer in Europe. A master of disguise, he makes his living stalking harbors, coffeehouses, and print shops for the latest manuscript to steal. But this golden age of publishing is on the verge of collapse. For a hundred years, loose copyright laws and a hungry reading public created a unique opportunity: books could easily be published without an author’s permission. Authors gained fame but suffered financially—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few—but publishers reaped enormous profits while readers bought books inexpensively. Yet on the eve of the twentieth century, a new international treaty is signed to grind this literary underground to a sharp halt. The bookaneers are on the verge of extinction.
From the author of The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl, The Last Bookaneer is the astonishing story of these literary thieves’ epic final heist. On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel. The thought of one last book from the great author fires the imaginations of the bookaneers, and soon Davenport sets out for the South Pacific island. As always, Davenport is reluctantly accompanied by his assistant Fergins, who is whisked across the world for one final caper. Fergins soon discovers the supreme thrill of aiding Davenport in his quest to steal Stevenson’s manuscript and make a fortune before the new treaty ends the bookaneers’ trade forever. But Davenport is hardly the only bookaneer with a mind to pirate Stevenson’s last novel. His longtime adversary, the monstrous Belial, appears on the island, and soon Davenport, Fergins, and Belial find themselves embroiled in a conflict larger, perhaps, than literature itself.
I admit, I wasn’t immediately enthralled with this story when I first picked it up, and I nearly didn’t return to it . . . but in the end, this premise was just too deliciously high-concept to ignore—a classic gray era of real history begging to be explored through fiction. And in a style that emulates the great 19th Century novelists he writes about, Pearl weaves a fascinating tale of intrigue, vengeance, and just how far a true book lover will go to protect what he loves most.
The Last Bookaneer is told from two first-person points of view: young Mr. Clover, a black waiter in a New York City railroad dining car; and Mr. Fergins, the wiry old book-cart salesman who wanders the aisles of the train, plying his trade. Clover and Fergins bond over their shared loved of books, and as they wait out a derailed train ahead of them on the tracks, Fergins begins to tell Clover the story of the bookaneers.
Having read the back cover, and thus expecting a story about book-pirates chasing Robert Louis Stevenson through the South Seas, I was thrown by this long introductory set-up of the story-within-a-story format. That’s why, when I first tried to read this book a few months ago, I almost gave up. But I couldn’t get this concept out of my mind, and when I tried reading it a second time, I finally “got it.” The prose is poetic and lyrical, in a style that perfectly emulates the adventure stories of Stevenson and Kipling, with an intricate, character-filled plot reminiscent of Dickens.
There are more than a dozen named characters in this story, yet I was able to keep almost all of them separate, so individually were they crafted. The only confusion came when Pearl was describing the native workers on Stevenson’s Samoan estate; with their unusual names, I often had trouble keeping some of the servants separate. But I felt that was somewhat intentional, as they would’ve been equally confusing to the English visitors, Fergins and Davenport, so it didn’t ruin the story for me. In all, the characters in this story, with the exception of Mr. Clover, didn’t feel realistic—but they weren’t supposed to. It’s a larger-than-life tale, so the larger-than-life characters fit the bill perfectly. They were objects of fascination to the narrators, Fergins and Clover, and thus became the same for me.
The unique story world combination of 1890s London, New York City, and Samoa was very exciting to read, and Pearl brought each location to life through his characters’ actions and descriptions. I particularly enjoyed how Pearl dug into the historical records of Stevenson’s final years in Samoa to bring the real-life novelist and his family to life.
While this is clearly an action-adventure mystery, complete with cannibals and head-hunters, the pace felt a bit slow to me at times, especially in the middle when Fergins and Davenport were in Samoa and simply waiting for Stevenson to finish the novel before they could enact their plan. I confess I began to skim a few paragraphs to keep the story moving along, but soon the action picked right back up again with the arrival of Davenport’s nemesis, the other bookaneer, Belial.
My only other complaint with the story was that, after seeing so much of the action first-hand through Fergins’ account to Mr. Clover, the ending felt awkward, grinding all the action to a halt as the resolution of the mystery required a major info-dump of behind-the-scenes action. Still, it managed to offer several surprising, delightful twists that I didn’t see coming—and I can’t say any more than that without spoiling it!
For a general market novel, The Last Bookaneer was surprisingly clean. There were about a dozen uses of the word d***, but many were literal, and most of the cursing was restricted to just one scene and one character. Conservative readers should know there are also references to bare-chested native women (though never graphically described) and descriptions of native violence in Samoa, including beheadings and a cannibalistic ritual. But none of these scenes were added for mere shock value, nor were they graphically described or even dwelt on for more than a sentence or two, and I felt all were necessary to the story. There are also references to opium addiction and drugs used to sedate and kidnap victims, but again, nothing graphically described or lingered on.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Bookaneer and am not only happy that I gave it a second chance, but am happy to recommend it to mature historical adventure fans.
Available April 28, 2015 from Penguin