'The Last Bookaneer' Is a Literary Thriller Starring 19th-Century Book Thieves

By Romeo, Nick | The Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2015 | Go to article overview

'The Last Bookaneer' Is a Literary Thriller Starring 19th-Century Book Thieves


Romeo, Nick, The Christian Science Monitor


Matthew Pearl's new novel, The Last Bookaneer, conjures the romance and subterfuge of 19th-century literary piracy. His heroes are buccaneering bookworms - men and women in the shadowy profession of stealing manuscripts from illustrious authors and selling them to publishers. Pearl's artistic license in imagining this dubious trade is substantial, but his novel grows from historical truths about book publishing. Charles Dickens was just one of many 19th-century literary luminaries who suffered, often quite noisily, from the effects of weak copyright laws; many of his fellow authors would have been far wealthier if they profited from sales of every edition of their works on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The Last Bookaneer" is essentially a heist caper, and the prize jewel that the literary thieves covet is the manuscript of Robert Louis Stevenson's unpublished last novel. Pearl nests the main narrative of this quest inside a framing story in which an old bookseller and former literary pirate befriends a young man eager to learn the lore from a veteran. The old bookaneer, Mr. Fergins, obliges him with tales of his apprenticeship to a master thief named Penrose Davenport. The culminating mission of Davenport's career is a voyage to the Samoan island of Upolu, "known for headhunters and cannibals."

The island is also where Robert Louis Stevenson bought land in 1889, five years before his death, and assumed the name Tusitala - Samoan for "teller of tales." Pearl again embroiders this core of historical fact with extravagant and enjoyable whimsy. Davenport schemes to outwit a rival bookaneer aptly named Belial, a devilish and deceitful nemesis posing as a missionary. Davenport, in turn, has assumed the disguise of a travel writer, and the two men compete to insinuate themselves into Stevenson's confidence in order to steal the manuscript he's nearly completed.

The Samoan setting allows for some lush atmospherics: sweltering jungles, topless native women, and intricate tribal politics. Cannibals and human heads mounted on spikes make their due appearances. But the cultural exotica also enables an interesting dynamic: We study the various European characters studying the local culture. Some hold a primly condescending view of the Samoans as savages, an attitude that their own behavior quickly undermines. Others treat the locals with anthropological curiosity, as if they were simply human equivalents to the island's strange flora and fauna, while still others behave with something approaching broad- minded humanity (the character of Robert Louis Stevenson usually manages this, though there's something faintly ludicrous in his whole-hearted adoption of Samoan dress and custom.)

The novel's plot is as dense and florid as the Samoan jungle; prickly tangles of schemes and counter-schemes catch at your ankles on nearly every page. …

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