The Dante Club (2006)

by Matthew Pearl

In Boston in 1865, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, helped by his friends James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the publisher J. T. Fields, is working on the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. The enterprise has opposition from no less than the Harvard Corporation, which considers the epic poem by an Italian Catholic subversive to America’s culture. As the writers and publisher rush to meet a deadline, someone starts inflicting fatal punishments on prominent citizens that are eerily similar to Dante’s gruesome punishments in The Inferno. “The Dante Club” scholars decide they’re better able than the police to decipher the clues—and protect their project and Dante’s reputation—so they attempt to find and stop the killer.

There much to like in this debut novel by Matthew Pearl. The reader learns a lot about Dante and his masterpiece, as well as about the literary icons of mid-19th-century Cambridge and Boston. Pearl brings Lowell, Holmes, and Longfellow to life and movingly portrays the friendship among them. He is equally adept at depicting post–Civil War Boston, the posttraumatic stress of returned soldiers, and the Northern prejudice against the blacks they’d gone to war to free. He is less effective with the murder plot. Although he's to be commended for trying to weave all the threads of the story into the mystery, it’s ultimately unconvincing. So, whether this is a book for you depends on what you like: If you go for period settings, literary history, and intellectual dialogue, you’re likely to enjoy this book. If a good mystery story is your main interest, you probably won’t enjoy it so much.


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