Written by Matthew Pearl
Published by Random House
Review by Katerie Pryor
When I first picked up Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, I balked at the story. Three of the greatest poets in American literature, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, are hunting for a serial killer who is using punishments from Dante’s Inferno in post-Civil War Boston. Right.
Never mind that Jack the Ripper, the first documented serial killer, is nearly 20 years and an ocean away. Forget that the concepts of psychology, forensic science, and serial killers are largely 20th century developments. And of course, aside from their academic work, their own writing, and creating the first American translation of Dante Aligheri’sThe Divine Comedies, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell had enough free time to dabble in solving crimes. Uh huh.
But after the first few pages, I set my balking aside. For poets and literary types, The Dante Club is pure historical fantasy – a novel that shakes the dust off of the three poets and uses what if to rewrite their lives as detectives. Their journey through late 19th century Boston, a gaslight world of elitist academics, shell-shocked Union soldiers, and discriminated immigrants, in pursuit of a killer, is exciting and from the comfort of the early 21st century, as exotic and remote as life on another planet. Even if you slept through your college American history or English literature class, Pearl’s complex horror thriller will keep you turning pages.
Boston in 1865 is no stranger to death. The Civil War has just ended and Lincoln’s assassination is recent news. In a city that reports one or two murders a year, however, the discovery of prominent city judge, found dead and covered in maggots, rattles the police. While the police chief is ready to claim foul play, Nicholas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, believes there is something more to the murder.
Across town, Harvard academics Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell along with unconventional publisher J. T. Fields, are part of the Dante Club, a group are translating Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy for publication. With most of Harvard’s scholars studying Greek and Latin texts, there is a general snobbery towards the club’s work on the translation. In the highly competitive academic environment, Longfellow and his colleagues are constantly thwarting the attempts of the academic elite to stop the publication.
When the papers print stories about another murder, a reverend found half-buried, head first in the ground with his feet on fire, the members of the Dante Club recognize his death as one of the punishments in the Inferno. Since few people are familiar with the Divine Comedy, the poets and their publisher are prime suspects. With their translation, reputations, and lives at stake, the Dante Club must work with Rey to find the murderer before he strikes again.
As Pearl’s debut novel, The Dante Club balances a fine line, weaving a murder around American literary figures with a clear crisp prose. Pearl’s fictionalized Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell are ripped from the pages of the canon and brought to life as detectives that could match wits with, well, another detective by the name of Holmes (if Pearl’s fictionalization is accurate, it’s no wonder Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the poet Holmes, also a medical doctor, as one of the inspirations for his detective).
Pearl heightens this element with a tense portrait of Boston in 1865. His descriptions of the university halls, the drawing rooms of Beacon Hill, the snowy dockyards, and veteran’s hospitals provide a mysterious and beguiling backdrop, a historical world unfamiliar and exciting to readers living more than a century later.
An award winning scholar of Dante, Pearl also provides clear explanations of the significance of the Divine Comedy as well as the lives of the poets. When the poets discuss the aesthetics of Dante after they realize what the murderer is doing, you won’t find yourself reaching for Cliff Notes. On the contrary, you wonder why more writers haven’t used the Inferno as the modus operendi of their murderers before.
The biggest complaint about The Dante Club after I read it was I wanted more. In an age when serial killers are common fodder for books and films, you may find yourself wishing for more people to become the victims of the Inferno’s punishments. Nonetheless, The Dante Club is a fascinating read that will leave readers hoping the book’s success will follow the example of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and spawn a sequel.
Katerie Prior is a freelance writer and recently added fiction writer to her credentials. Her first published short story appears in WordRiot.org in June 2003. She also created and maintains the Writer’s Confidant website.