Matthew Pearl: The Last Bookaneer (Vintage)
Towards the end of the 19th century, before the copyright of books was internationally recognised, there was a brisk black market trade in works acquired from popular authors and then published abroad.
This trade was particularly fecund between the US and Europe. If a book published in Europe could be pre-emptively published in America, or vice versa, there was a good deal of money to be made, but the author and the original publisher rarely saw a penny. Matthew Pearl takes this as the starting point for his novel about an elite class of literary pirates he calls bookaneers, men and women travelling the world to obtain new or rare literary works by fair means or foul. Pearl frames his tale using two narrators, an American boy and the unusual Englishman he meets who recognises and encourages his love of books.
Clover, a black waiter working in the dining cars of trains run by the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company, opens the story. A bright young man, the highlight of his day is when Mr Fergins, an English bookseller, brings his cart onto the train. Fergins allows Clover to read one of his books for the length of time it takes him to push his cart from one end of the train to the other, selling his books to the passengers. Clover is fascinated by the friendly bookseller and when the train is delayed, he listens as Fergins regales him with his adventures in the literary trade.
Fergins takes over the narration and explains to Clover how he went from owning a moderately successful book stall in London to travelling the world as an assistant to one of the most successful bookaneers, an American called Pen Davenport. Fergins is told that the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson is completing a new novel that is said to be his masterpiece. This piques Davenport’s interest. To acquire what will likely be Stevenson’s final novel – the author’s always precarious health is deteriorating – will not only be financially advantageous, it will be a major coup for Davenport. However it won’t be easy as Stevenson is firmly ensconced on a remote Samoan island. Infiltrating Stevenson’s household and then stealing the manuscript seems impossible to Fergins but not to the wily Davenport. There is one more hurdle to overcome. Belial, Davenport’s nemesis in the world of bookaneers, is rumoured to be setting out on exactly the same mission. Davenport tricks Fergins into accompanying him as he attempts to reach Stevenson before Belial.
What follows is a rousing expedition to the South Seas that pastiches Stevenson’s own writing. Pearl’s description of the Samoan islands and their peoples is vivid and he also manages to weave the unstable political situation into the fiction. Germany, America and Great Britain all had designs on Samoa, each supporting different factions within the Samoan communities as they fought for supremacy over the islands. The two men meet Stevenson, known in Samoan as Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’, on Upola island and are invited to his home, Vailima. Pearl portrays Stevenson as a sickly, patrician figure who is respected by his Samoan servants and neighbours. He does not reveal any new insights into the man but demonstrates how closely involved he was in island politics, writing about what he saw as mistakes by the colonial powers. Stevenson’s family, his mother, wife, step-daughter and step-son, while away their time on the island as best they can. The appearance of visitors from the world they have left behind is a welcome distraction and something that Davenport is relying on.
While Pearl may be aping Stevenson’s style, the duo of Fergins and Davenport brings to mind the creations of Arthur Conan Doyle, Stevenson’s Scottish contemporary. Davenport, who seems to absorb details other miss and is always one step ahead, is not unlike Sherlock Holmes in his brilliance and sudden mood changes while Fergins, a more reserved and stolid character, plays his Dr Watson. Although engaged in a nefarious trade, Fergins and Davenport behave more like a pair of master detectives than criminals. It engenders some sympathy for them and their quest although Davenport’s ruthlessness does become shockingly clear.
Occasionally Pearl lets the pace drop a little but overall the novel proceeds with enjoyable speed. Cameo appearances by characters from Pearl’s previous novels will please long-time fans of his work while a final twist in the tale reveals the astonishing identity of the last, true bookaneer.