Matthew Pearl’s “The Last Bookaneer” is a ripping historical mystery based on real-life 19th-century thieves who would go to any lengths to steal literary manuscripts — in this case, Robert Louis Stevenson’s last book. Pearl appears May 4 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Matthew Pearl has a particular specialty: finding an obscure corner of 19th-century history and spinning from it literary fiction that is thought-provoking, enlightening, smoothly written — and a ripping good story to boot.
Among his previous works are “The Poe Shadow,” which postulates an answer to the writer’s enigmatic death, and “The Last Dickens,” about a daring search for the author’s final, unfinished manuscript. Sound dry? Hardly. Pearl’s work is always seasoned with an assortment of vivid figures: scalawags, brave heroes, murderers and the like, echoing the melodramatic tone of much of the era’s literature.
The Boston writer’s latest is “The Last Bookaneer” (Penguin, 400 pp., $27.95), another bracing adventure set in the world of 19th-century literature lovers.
The author of “The Last Bookaneer” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, May 4, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
“Bookaneers” were literary pirates who took advantage of the era’s lack of international-copyright law to sell, without permission, unpublished manuscripts by famous writers. (Pearl explains in an afterword that the term dates from at least the 1830s.)
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In this case, it’s 1891 and two bitter rivals, Pen Davenport and the sinisterly named Belial, are vying for a genuine treasure: Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel.
To this end they journey to Samoa, where the charismatic, world-famous Stevenson has set himself up as a philosopher-king, claiming dominion over a vast estate and gaining the absolute loyalty of a large staff. But he’s deathly ill and determined to finish one last manuscript.
Davenport and Belial insinuate themselves into Stevenson’s circle, disguised respectively as a writer and missionary. Each hopes to wait until the manuscript is complete, steal it — and then get away alive, since Stevenson’s minions would unhesitatingly kill the thief.
Pearl expertly evokes the half-idyllic, half-fierce Samoa of those days. (There’s a whiff here of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart of Darkness,” which also examines “civilized” versus “savage” society. Meanwhile, Stevenson’s role as a self-appointed tribal chief nicely mirrors Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz.)
Pearl has provided a number of colorful fictional secondary characters, including Stevenson’s spirited wife Fanny, a beautiful, resourceful servant and her dwarf bodyguard — not to mention some scary cannibals.
The tale is related by Fergins, a mild-mannered bookseller who becomes Davenport’s sidekick. Fergins’ audience for his narrative is Clover, a railway porter with an appetite for literature. Clover, at first just an avid listener, proves crucial to one of the clever twists at the book’s end.
Pearl is a demon researcher, but “The Last Bookaneer” wears those studies lightly — there’s not a single dull lecture hall in sight. The author’s passion for detail, combined with his gift for balancing a leisurely pace with fast-moving action, makes for a deeply satisfying experience.