In Matthew Pearl’s latest historical thriller, THE LAST BOOKANEER he raises the question of what is a “book’a-neer’ (bŏŏk’kå-nēr’), n. a literary pirate; an individual capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers must not have a part in.” Further he states that it is a person who was part of “the mostly invisible chain of actors that links authors to readers.” These definitions provide the basis for Pearl’s continued ability to design and develop plot lines that bibliophiles find endearing and all consuming. After his successes with THE DANTE CLUB, THE POE SHADOW and THE LAST DICKENS his latest effort finds the reader engrossed in a tale centered in the Samoan Islands in the early 1890s involving a supposed last novel from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, in 1890 Stevenson did purchase a 400 acre tract of land in Upolu in Samoa where he built his estate in the village of Vailima where he would live until his death in 1894. A major part of the novel is centered on the estate and the surrounding area encompassing its topography and the lives of the Samoan people. What makes the novel a success is Pearl’s continued ability to place the reader in the 19th century and creating a wonderful literary yarn that reeks of a possible reality.
The story evolves as Edgar Fergins, an English bookseller imparts the history of bookaneers beginning in 1790 and the first American laws that governed copyrights that left out foreign authors, causing foreign countries to withdraw the protection of American authors. What resulted was the plundering of literature on both sides of the Atlantic. Publishers resorted to hiring covert agents to scour the world for manuscripts in the hope of publishing important items first. Employing spying and intimidation these individuals were a focal point of the publishing industry. Pearl provides a number of bookaneers for the reader to engage with. Whiskey Bill and Kitten reappear from previous novels, but it is the American, Penrose Davenport, employing Edgar Fergins in his quest to seize Stevenson’s last manuscript, THE SHOVELS OF NEWTON FRENCH that dominate the story along with their arch enemy in the chase, Benjamin Lott, better known as Belial. As countries moved toward an international agreement on copyright laws in the last quarter of the 19th century, the livelihood of bookaneers was threatened with extinction. The background for the story is served by Davenport and Belial’s fear that the race for Stevenson’s manuscript would be the last such adventure that they would ever engage in. This leads to a story that centered on lies and deception, with vengeance and guilt not far from the surface.
Pearl’s love of books emerges through his diverse characters as Fergins remarks, “For readers, books are a universal salve. When we are hot, we read to feel cooler, when we are cold, we read to warm up; tired, books wake us; anxious, they calm us.” (142) The keeper of a bookstall has insights that no one else has. “From the type of cracks in the spine and the edges of pages, I can tell at a glance a book that is well read from a book that has been abused….books are not just words on the page, but the blots and the dog-earned corners, the buttery thumbprints and pipe ash we leave on them. Books are written over with names, dates, romantic and business propositions, gift dedications, the pages could be pressed onto flowers, keys and notes. A book can unfold moments or generations.…how odd it must be to go through life believing that a book [is only] a book.” (289)
The story is narrated by Fergins in large part as he conveys his experience in Samoa and the literary industry in general to a dining car waiter he has met in New York named Clover. Later in the novel Clover will take over as the second narrator as the plot takes a most unusual twist. Through his characters Pearl provides the reader with an exquisite description of the Samoan Islands and its people. We see the beauty of their customs and the loyalty they express. At this time the natives are caught in a crossfire between German and English interests on the islands that creates an indigenous civil war that they must contend with. There are parts of the novel that remind us of Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS which also examined civilized vs. primitive societies. Through the portrayal of Stevenson’s bohemian lifestyle we witness a somewhat civilized society, while on the other hand we see the savageness of the bookaneer in the characters of Davenport and Belial, while the local Samoans seem to be the epitome of the purity of the human soul.
If you enjoyed Pearl’s previous historical mysteries, his current effort will not disappoint. The plot continuously shifts and offers numerous surprises. It calls forth emotions in the characters as well as the reader and Pearl’s style as he describes “Tusitala” (Stevenson’s Samoan name) reign as a chieftain in the Pacific as we witness a contented man who has escaped the industrialized world for the simplicity and freedom that he yearned for.