MATTHEW PEARL. The Dante Club (2003).

19 Jun

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. DanteClub.jpg 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.


Posted by on June 19, 2013 in American, Historical, Novel, Puzzle


5 responses to “MATTHEW PEARL. The Dante Club (2003).

  1. Dr. Evangelicus

    June 20, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Sounds boring.

  2. John

    June 20, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    This was another one of those historical mysteries loaded with psychological and behavioral anachronisms that began to grate on me. Your catalog of Pearl’s info dumping above is the trap that most of these books fall into. I tried to read his second book about Poe but lost interest rapidly. Never finished it.

  3. Mike

    June 20, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    I wasn’t bored by “The Dante Club,” but then I’m probably a special case. I had to read “The Inferno” in college, I studied U.S. history as a graduate student, and I had lived in the Boston area for a decade when I read this book. So I found all of the background info to be quite interesting. The novel itself: not so much.

    With respect to anachronisms, I tend to accept them as more or less unavoidable in this kind of work. A commitment to period-accurate psychology would alienate most readers in a big way. But I know what you mean, John. I’m repeatedly drawn to historical mysteries such as this one, but I’m also repeatedly disappointed by them—and that air of anachronism partly explains why.

  4. Curtis Evans

    June 20, 2013 at 3:06 PM

    The trick, I always think in these books, is wearing the research lightly.

    • Mike

      June 21, 2013 at 11:40 AM

      Yes, I’m hard put to think of an historical mystery in which the author does wear the research lightly. It’s been years since I read any of JDC’s historicals. Since he well-nigh created this sub-genre, maybe I should go back and see how he carried it off.


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