THE LAST BOOKANEER by Matthew Pearl

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A Bookaneer is a term probably made up by Pearl, although he claims that he has seen the word in writings of many years ago. It is used in bringing us a novel based on facts surrounding the actual stealing of works by famous authors. About one hundred years ago, an international treaty was signed to guarantee  authors’ works as intellectual property and ensuring that those writers would have the income from their works protected.

Prior to the protection of the copyright treaty, it was fair game for works to be literally stolen from their creators and sold by the thieves. Matthew Pearl sets up a well written novel about people that would dedicate their activities to stealing authors’ works and rapidly selling these to publishers. A public hungry for books to read set up a market eager to get new material.

Using a bookseller, E. Fergins, as the narrator of the story Pearl brings us into the last days of the cutthroat era of theft by the Bookaneers. They are all aware of the imminent implementation of the copyright treaty and are looking for one last big score before being forced out of business. Fergins meets the leading Bookaneers and describes their activities.

Authors such as Dickens, Poe and others are mentioned as being victimized. But the top prize seems to be Robert Louis Stevenson, who has moved to Samoa with his family.  Fergins is forced to take a trip there with Pen Davenport, one of the leading Bookaneers, and his employer. Also arriving on Samoa is Belial, another Bookaneer, and Davenport’s arch rival.

Pearl has done a major job of researching and fleshing out Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife and his two step children. They have built a beautiful estate on the island and live the life of royalty. Stevenson is quite ill, but still working to finish what he indicates will be his masterpiece. The conditions that existed on Samoa at the time of this story involved conflict between the U.S., England and Germany for control of the islands. Each of these countries had interests which they sought to enlarge. There was also the importing of slaves captured on other islands in the south Pacific in order to work on plantations.

The interaction between the attempts to get Stevenson’s next novel coupled with the political scene make for a great read.  We are brought successfully into the period and the literary world that existed through Matthew Pearl’s research and skillful handling of the plot.

5/15 Paul Lane

THE LAST BOOKANEER by Matthew Pearl . Penguin Press; 1St Edition edition (April 28, 2015). ISBN: 978-1594204920. 400p.

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