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The Last Bookaneer: A Novel


Edited by Ann Godoff

The bestselling author of The Dante Club takes us deep into a shadowy era in publishing ruled by a forgotten class of criminals

A golden age of publishing on the verge of collapse. For a hundred years, loose copyright laws and a hungry reading public created a unique opportunity: Books could be published without an author’s permission with extraordinary ease. Authors gained fame but suffered financially—Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few—but publishers reaped enormous profits while readers got their books on the cheap. The literary pirates who stalked the harbors, coffeehouses, and printer shops for the latest manuscript to steal were known as bookaneers.

Yet on the eve of the twentieth century, a new international treaty is signed to protect authors and grind this literary underground to a sharp halt. The bookaneers, of course, would become extinct. In The Last Bookaneer, Matthew Pearl gives us a historical novel set inside the lost world of these doomed outlaws and the incredible heist that brought their era to a close.

On the island of Samoa, a dying Robert Louis Stevenson labors over a new novel. The thought of one last book from the great author fires the imaginations of the bookaneers, and soon two adversaries—the gallant Pen Davenport and the monstrous Belial—set out for the south Pacific island. Pen Davenport—a tortured criminal genius haunted by his past—is reluctantly accompanied by Fergins, the narrator of our story, who has lived a quiet life of bookselling before being whisked across the world on his friend’s final caper. Fergins soon discovers the supreme thrill of aiding Davenport in his quest: to steal Stevenson’s manuscript and make a fortune before the new treaty ends the bookaneers’ trade forever.

 

Yet Samoa holds many secrets of its own, and the duo’s bookish concerns clash with the island’s violent destiny. A colonial war is afoot between the British, American, and German powers; even as Stevenson himself quietly supports native revolutionaries from high in his mountain compound. Soon Pen and Fergins are embroiled in a conflict larger, perhaps, than literature itself. Illuminating the heroics of the bookaneers even while conjuring Stevenson himself to breathtaking life, Pearl’s The Last Bookaneer is a pageturning journey to the dark heart of a forgotten literary era.

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Praise

“[A] historical jigsaw puzzle of literary larceny, deception, and derring-do…[A] richly imagined account… The elite bookaneers were also vindictive, spiteful and viciously ambitious, and Pearl has buckets of fun exploring this world of thieves, spies, smugglers, and tricksters in detailed depth…Packed with bookish love and intrigue, THE LAST BOOKANEER winningly transforms what Pearl notes in his afterword as a ‘fragment of legal and publishing history’ into fictional magic.”—Boston Globe

“Matthew Pearl has a particular specialty: finding an obscure corner of 19th-century history and spinning from it literary fiction that is thought-provoking, enlightening, smoothly written — and a ripping good story to boot…[THE LAST BOOKANEER is] another bracing adventure set in the world of 19th-century literature lovers…Pearl is a demon researcher, but THE LAST BOOKANEER wears those studies lightly — there’s not a single dull lecture hall in sight. The author’s passion for detail, combined with his gift for balancing a leisurely pace with fast-moving action, makes for a deeply satisfying experience.”—Seattle Times

“One more example of [Pearl’s] ability to bring history’s people and places to vividly compelling life…Fast-paced and smart and thoughtful – an altogether outstanding read…Pearl has taken a relatively minor historical footnote and spun a thrilling, fascinating tale of literary intrigue. The richness of the backdrop – particularly the portrayal of Samoa – is textured and nuanced. The reader tumbles headlong into the world being created, borne across the land and sea by Pearl’s intricate narrative and expressive prose.”—The Maine Edge

Fans of Pearl will love the journey in this latest historical thriller. The amount of time and effort that went into conducting the appropriate research is evident throughout the book and it brings to light an era of publishing that is as fascinating as it is unknown. In a time where digital media is changing the landscape of the publishing industry, this book reminds us that the means by which a story is delivered is not as important as what we take from it.—Everyday eBook

“An entertaining adventure tale steeped in literary history…[Pearl] offers many of the charms and unrushed distractions of a favorite old bookstore.”Kirkus (starred review)

“This swashbuckling tale of greed and great literature will remind you why Pearl is the reigning king of popular literary historical thrillers. His latest is guaranteed to delight lovers of history and mystery.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“In the days before e-books, self-publishing, and fan fiction, publishing was an even riskier undertaking—or so Pearl makes an entertaining case for in his latest, ingenious literary caper…Pearl gives the bookaneers a lively fictitious history…and populates it with a colorful cast of roguish characters…A loving testament to the enduring power of paper books.”—Publishers Weekly

“Writing mischievously clever novels about famous writers is Pearl’s forte…Passionately researched and ebulliently imagined…Pearl’s vividly descriptive and energetically plotted novel churns and charms with intriguing literary history, acid social critique, witty dialogue, and delectably surprising and diabolical reversals and betrayals.”—Booklist

Author Q&A

Excerpt

If you should ever meet people who tell you they know something about the bookaneers, be skeptical. In all probability they deal in myths and fables. That most people have never heard of the bookaneers and never will stems from the bookaneers’ unique position in that long, twisty, and mostly invisible chain of actors that links author to reader. It will be the bookaneers’ collective fate to have appeared and disappeared with only traces left in our atmosphere, like so many meteors. The story I have to tell is about a particular bookaneer of the most extraordinary skill— the last true representative, some might say, of that name and tribe. My account is true in all particulars because I was there.

Among the various mischief makers and profiteers that have besieged books from time immemorial, there arose the bookaneers. Their origins go back to the first American laws to govern copyrights. That legislation, passed in 1790 by high-minded and arrogant legislators (the usual politicians, in other words), deliberately left works of foreign authors unprotected, which caused other countries to retaliate by withdrawing protection for American works. This opened doors to various kinds of pirates and black markets, European literature plundered by Americans and vice versa. Publishers did their best to shut those doors—at first. But you will find in life that greed for profits is too strong for even good men to resist.

In the new era—not just to publish, but to publish first and cheaply—the publishers had to find individuals with particular sets of skills who could obtain manuscripts and proof sheets through persuasion, bribery, extortion, and, at times, outright theft, then transport them from one country to another. After a while, the publishers and these covert agents expanded beyond trying to secure foreign books; assignments were handed out to spy on rival publishing houses and execute any errands that had to be accomplished out of public view.

In short: A bookaneer is a person capable of doing all that must be done in the universe of books that publishers, authors, and readers can have no part in—must have no part in. Bookaneers would not call themselves thieves, but they would resort to almost any means to profit from an unprotected book. Take the pocket Webster’s from the bottom shelf of my cart and open to “B”—it would go right there, between “book” and “bookish.” No, you will not find “bookaneer” in any dictionary, but pay attention and we can fill one in.

 

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