The Last Bookaneer

Written by Matthew Pearl
Review by Wendy Zollo

Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, has created a unique literary adventure. For over a century, non-restrictive copyright laws have allowed the works of authors great and small to be published without their consent, allowing them to attain a certain level of fame (Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens) while depriving them of the fortune that should go with it. Publishing houses grew wealthy, the growing reading public got their material modestly, and this vortex of events allowed for the development of a new class of thieves, the “Bookaneers” – literary pirates – and they, too, thrived. Bookaneers prided themselves on plotting and deception to acquire not-yet-published manuscripts.

At the dawn of the 20th century, a new international treaty is about to be authorized to shelter authors’ rights to their own property, meaning the Bookaneers will cease to exist. Pen Davenport, crafty and one of the best of the Bookaneers, gets word that a dying Stevenson is near to completing a new novel on the island of Samoa. The idea of poaching this last manuscript incites his soul. He sets out with his man, the tentative Fergins (the narrator), for this last chance at tremendous fortune and quietly relishes the inevitable adventure and folly it will entail. There are other Bookaneers on the same trail, namely Belial, Davenport’s nemesis, a worthy adversary, both malevolent and intelligent. This pairing leads to loaded skirmishes and absorbingly captivating situations.

Pearl leads us down a path of island culture and clashes, international politics, and stunning characters. He has created something remarkable: an original concept with a historical theme and an overwhelming sense of adventure that is both rollicking and thought-provoking. The Last Bookaneer is a beautifully crafted piece of art and nothing short of brilliantly written and conceived.