Boston, at the tail end of 1865, is intent on putting the horrors of the Civil War behind it. Who, then, is equally intent on bringing to that fabled City on a Hill a new series of horrors—those envisioned by the 13th-century Florentine poet Dante in The Inferno? The answer, this earnestly crafted thriller suggests, comes in two parts. First, a group of literary luminaries plans to introduce Dante’s masterpiece to the New World by releasing a fresh English translation. Second, a deranged soul has begun, in a brutally literal fashion, to enact the poet’s medieval punishments upon select members of the Boston Brahmin caste. The two parts converge when the illustrious men of letters, led by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who is joined by the poet and teacher James Russell Lowell, the doctor-essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the publisher James T. Fields), take notice of the killer’s grisly approach to literary criticism. Then, filling a gap left by the slightly corrupt and scholastically hopeless Boston police force, they remake their self-proclaimed Dante Club into a squad of sleuths. Pearl smoothly mixes dark historical fact and the darker fancy of his 21st-century mind, yielding a big, boxy narrative that contains more riches than it truly needs: entomological curiosities, sidelights on American publishing history, the psychological effects of mass carnage upon Union veterans, the sorrows of Longfellow in widowerhood, race relations in the seat of abolitionism, the tensions wrought upon proudly modern Boston by its Calvinist past, and on and on. The members of the Dante Club track down the poetry-mad perpetrator, with a zeal that they would otherwise devote to hunting down le mot juste, but the heroic climax is too long in coming. Like many writers who set their pick against the quarry of history, Pearl ends up weighing his book down with great slabs of research. The result, though smartly told in solid prose, justifies his hard work more than it serves the strict needs of his tale.
MATTHEW PEARL. The Dante Club (2003).