Published by Random House
Review by W. R. Greer
Successful historical fiction must not only perfectly capture a sense of time and place, but it also needs a plot entertaining enough to keep the reader turning the pages. Too often the author gets too caught up in the capturing that moment in the past and ends up giving the plot short shrift. Murder mysteries, on the other hand, often emphasize plot and action over character or other thematic elements. Matthew Pearl's debut novel not only attempts to combine both of these, but he centers his story around a group of poets and a 600-year old poem. The Dante Club succeeds not only as historical fiction and murder mystery, but as a literary effort that seeks to mine the truth about being human in a difficult world.
The setting is Boston in 1865. The Civil War, which tore the country and communities apart, has ended. Not only has it forever changed the country, but also the men straggling home from the war. Immigrants are teeming to the country's shores, and the Irish settling in the Boston area bring Catholicism to a predominantly Protestant city. The novel opens with the brutal murder of the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in his home. It's a murder that stymies the police, since they can't establish a motive or explain why the judge might have been targeted.
Against this backdrop, Boston's literary elite begin a translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy from its original Italian to English. It would be the first American translation of Dante's famous opus. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, mourning the loss of his wife, begins the translation to keep his mind occupied out of fear he'll be unable to write poetry again. He is aided in his work by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet James Russell Lowell, publisher J. T. Fields, and historian George Washington Greene. They meet regularly on Wednesday nights to work on the translation together and call themselves the Dante Club.
Although the members of the club all have connections to Harvard University, either as alumni or professors, initially the university is the biggest threat to their work. Augustus Manning, treasurer of the Harvard Corporation, threatens to pull all publishing work from Field's publishing house and to cancel the Dante course that Lowell teaches if they don't stop work on their translation. A firm believer in classical studies and languages, Manning, felt that "Italian, like Spanish and German, particularly represented the loose political passions, bodily appetites, and absent morals of decadent Europe."
When a minister is murdered in a bizarre fashion, buried head first with his feet set afire, the members of the Dante Club realize that both murders are copies of punishments detailed in Dante's Inferno. They also realize that since the number of people in Boston who've read Dante is small, they would be likely suspects if the police became aware of the connections between the murders and Dante's poem. It would also be bad publicity for the publication of their translation if the public became aware it. The members of The Dante Club decide they must find the murderer first.
The novel starts out slowly as Matthew Pearl lays the groundwork and introduces all the characters. Almost too much time is taken to set the atmosphere for 1865 Boston and the literary community, as well as introducing the multiple protagonists. It's obvious that Matthew Pearl, with degrees in English and American literature and winner of the Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America, carries a deep understanding of each of the historical figures and a reverence for Dante's work. To those of us mostly unaware of these poets, it's initially difficult to separate them and discern their different backgrounds and personalities. Just as it appears that the author is too much in love with his characters and historical setting at the expense of an intriguing story, the second murder puts everything into gear and the story takes off.
After this point, the author superbly balances the action, character development, and sprinkling of arcane facts to keep the story intelligent and interesting. Each of the different protagonists becomes easier to understand and follow, while the mystery of the murders seems incomprehensible. The members of the Dante Club are as perplexed as the reader, unable to identify who might know The Inferno well enough to carry out the murders with exacting detail and what motive he might have to murder some of Boston's most prominent men. One policeman, Nicholas Rey, begins to understand the connections between Dante's work and the murders. Rey is the first black policeman on the Boston force, appointed by the governor under the conditions that he not wear a uniform or be able to arrest a white man. He begins to piece together information that could let loose the secrets the Dante Club would rather keep from the public. Pressure also continues to mount from Manning and the University to bring about their ruin as well.
There's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief necessary to envision these literary men in the later years of their lives chasing a murderer around Boston. Fortunately, the reward for this is that the men of the Dante Club can unravel the clues to solve the mystery. Matthew Pearl does an excellent job explaining the different circles of hell through his poets so the reader can understand, not just their connections to the murders, but their importance to the poets as well. With what appears to be an accurate portrayal of 19th century Boston in late fall and early winter, it's easy to immerse yourself in the story and watch everything unfold in an understandable fashion.
The Dante Club is an excellent debut novel for Matthew Pearl. It's a bit uneven at times, but once it hits its stride, it's an entertaining and intelligent story that holds your attention until everything comes to a satisfying conclusion. A previous knowledge about Dante or the Boston poets isn't necessary to enjoy this fine novel. I look forward to what Matthew Pearl might have in store next for us.
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