Several of Matthew Pearl’s previous novels, such as The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, have dealt with literary history. In his new book, The Last Bookaneer, Pearl explores the last days before copyright law, when intellectual property was readily pirated, especially in the case of British authors’ works being published in America without the authors’ consent. The term bookaneer refers to the people who stole manuscripts through whatever nefarious means might have been necessary.
The novel begins on a train in New York, with a young waiter and an old bookseller, who have struck up a friendship because of their mutual love of books. Mr. Fergins shares a tale with his young friend about an attempt to steal the last masterpiece of Robert Louis Stevenson, in which Fergins himself was involved. Stevenson, aging and unwell, really did seek solace in Samoa and became involved in the politics of the island. The story Mr. Fergins tells is full of the sort of danger, deception, and ruthless villains you’d expect from a Stevenson novel.
What really won me over as a I read though, were the many times Pearl’s narrators (the young waiter, Mr. Clover, is the other narrator) talked about books. Such as:
Strangers talking over piles of books do not remain strangers for long. (page 22)
When a bookshop in a city of culture such as London stops its operations, it is viewed by the wider community as a failure of mankind–a sign that books are no longer being read, or only the wrong sort of books, that literature’s finally dead, or in a temporary state of decay, that bookshops will one day disappear altogether and be replaced by mail order, that eventually books themselves would be finally and fully buried by that awful foe, so much cheaper and easier to carry: newspapers. (page 28)
The reader wants to rescue E.A. Poe; he wants to be a friend to Longfellow; wants Dickens to be his friend, Sir Walter Scott to be his wealthy uncle; but would be satisfied simply to lay eyes on R.L. Stevenson. (page 67)
The Last Bookaneer is a book lover’s book, a fun adventure story hiding in a literary work of historical fiction.