An entertaining adventure tale steeped in literary history tells of rival book pirates seeking their biggest prize, the last novel of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94).
Pearl (The Technologists, 2012, etc.) extrapolates from a scrap of history about the illicit 19th-century trade in books before the international copyright law of 1891 to imagine a busy demimonde of bookaneers (he says in an afterword he found the term used as early as 1837) working in New York and London. He brings in the characters Whiskey Bill and Kitten from his 2009 novel, The Last Dickens, both central to subplots in the present novel. The main plot has the two leading bookaneers, Davenport and Belial, vying for the Stevenson prize by voyaging to Samoa, where the author of Treasure Island has established himself as a sort of philosopher-king. Davenport has a sidekick named Fergins, a former bookseller, who plays Watson to his companion’s Holmes. As usual with Pearl, sleuthing helps drive the story, especially when Davenport uses his keen eye and deductive skills to investigate Kitten’s death after her great coup, finding a Mary Shelley manuscript. Mostly the story dawdles on Samoa, waiting for the great author to finish his masterpiece and for a chance to outwit the devilish Belial. Pearl has fun with cannibals, a native beauty, an amorous dwarf, myriad literary references and allusions, and not one but two neat twists as the tale winds down. He also plays with narrative voices, delivering most of the story through Fergins’ memories of it but as told to Clover, a black railway porter befriended by the bookseller and a key figure in the final twist. The narrative device adds another layer of 19th-century literary atmosphere.
Pearl is a smooth writer whose adoption of the ambling pace, digressions, and melodrama of an earlier literary era may not suit today’s instant gratifiers, but he offers many of the charms and unrushed distractions of a favorite old bookstore.