Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Last Bookaneer, by Matthew Pearl

Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594204920, April 2015

In 1890s New York City, a mixed race young man by the name of Clover, working in a railroad dining car, meets a book peddler named Fergins. Fergins is English, and kind enough to lend Clover books when they meet. Eventually, Fergins starts telling Clover of his adventures as an assistant to one of the last great bookaneers.

In the nineteenth century, copyright law in nearly every country left the works of foreign authors, or works originally published in other countries, unprotected. This created the trade of bookaneering--stealing manuscripts before the authors could sell them. Writers lost out financially, but publishers made greater profits while book buyers got books comparatively cheaply.

In 1890, Fergins and his bookaneer employer, Penrose Davenport, learn that Robert Louis Stevenson, living in Samoa, is at work on what may be his last great masterpiece of a novel. And they are off on what will be the last great bookaneer escapade, before the new international copyright convention, at last protecting authors internationally, goes into effect on July 1.

[Note: really cursory research seems to indicate this chronology is not right. Never mind; it makes for a great story!] They work their way into the confidence of the Stevenson household in Samoa, and then scheme and contrive to locate the manuscript so they can steal it as soon as it's finished. They're not alone; another successful bookaneer, Davenport's rival Belial, is already there.

Davenport and Belial are both dangerous, ruthless men. Stevenson is a great deal more wily and dangerous than they realize. It's a suspenseful and absorbing story, with an entertaining twist.

It takes the reader longer to see what's happening in the frame story of Fergins and Clover, which has its own unexpected twist.

The characters are handled very well, and one can find oneself lured into liking characters one has more than enough information to know should not be trusted. Once I got well started on the story, I couldn't put it down.

Recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publsher via Penguin's First to Read program.