THE LAST BOOKANEER, by Matthew Pearl. Penguin Press, 389 pp., $27.95.
Since the 2003 publication of his first novel, "The Dante Club," Matthew Pearl has gained acclaim for dropping historical figures such as Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens into his satisfying thrillers.
In his latest, "The Last Bookaneer," Pearl conjures Robert Louis Stevenson, ailing as he struggles to complete one last manuscript. Just as the real-life author once did, Pearl's character has dragged his family to the South Pacific island of Upolu, where he buys 400 acres of land and builds a private compound.
Because this is a Matthew Pearl novel, certain elements are guaranteed: duplicity, intrigue, brilliant criminals and meticulously layered plot twists.
As Pearl explains in an afterword to his novel, long before the launch of e-books and rampant Internet piracy, the 19th century had its share of literary pirates. Until an international copyright agreement was signed in 1891, publishers often hired shady freelance agents to get hold of valuable manuscripts without authorial permission. These texts were obtained by bribery or theft, then transported internationally.
The bounty hunters were perpetually in search of the latest treasure, hoping to earn a profit along with the publishers who hired them. Authors were outraged that they had so little control over the publication of their work. (In the afterword Pearl quotes Rudyard Kipling: "The high seas of literature are unprotected, and those who traffic in them must run their chance of being plundered.")
In this story, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the plunderers and the plundered. Two leading "bookaneers," Pen Davenport and his rival, Belial, hope for a final mission before the copyright law takes effect. Though driven by different motives, each man is determined to outwit the other and secure Stevenson's manuscript.
Joining Davenport in the South Pacific is the unassuming London bookseller Fergins, who narrates much of the story. He wants no part of an overseas adventure with a cantankerous bookaneer, but admits that he's intrigued: "Why had Stevenson left behind the rest of the world to remain on an island desolate of any trace of culture?"
Fergins, who has profited from the shady dealings of bookaneers himself, understands that they are hardly the only con men of the literary world. After all, he says, there were "shameless autograph hunters and forgers, collectors who tried passing off third editions as firsts, publishers who gave false discounts and fabricated advertising costs, customs officials who sought graft on expensive editions imported from abroad."
After a slow buildup, "The Last Bookaneer" really takes off once Davenport and Fergins arrive on the Samoan island, hoping to beat Belial to the prize. (Davenport passes himself off as a travel writer; Belial poses as a missionary.) They cultivate a relationship with Stevenson, who admits that he is writing what will be "my masterpiece, elusive until now." Soon the men also become enmeshed in the island's political strife.
Pearl offers a fascinating portrait of Stevenson and the exotic landscape he adopted in exile. Each character in the novel, however minor, is more complex than cardboard. In writing dialogue, however, Pearl occasionally falters: "You underestimate yourself, only fools have no enemies," says Davenport, sounding as dastardly as Darth Vader. "Fergins, soon will come the triumph you've been waiting to witness."
Lines like that are a bit much, but Pearl is usually more subtle. "The Last Bookaneer" is entertaining, well constructed and timely in its imaginative investigation into literary piracy. Populated by bibliophiles who will get their hands on books by any means necessary, it's a seductive read for anyone similarly obsessed.