The Dante Club - Matthew Pearl
"Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear."
Finding a work that combines Dante Alighieri, 19th Century Boston, Harvard University politics, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and a serial killer is...well, it's a rare find, and a rippin' good mystery novel it makes...
The Civil War is over. The troops are returning, The Confederacy is crushed beneath the Union's heel and Boston, the "Athens" of the North, is the epicenter of American intellectual life. In this rarified atmosphere, the Dante Club is formed. The Dante Club is a group of Boston's finest literari: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and publisher J.T. Fields; dedicated to bringing the first American translation of Dante Aligheri's Divine Comedy to publication. Opposed by an insular Harvard and scholars that view Dante as dangerous and foreign, The Dante Club must also face a terrifying new threat: finding a vicious serial killer that seems to be copying the punishments in The Inferno and metting them out onto some of Boston's most prominent citizens.
Somewhat reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (another mystery with hidden depths in a unique setting ) The Dante Club is one of those books that may be off-putting to some readers due to the "literary" nature of its subject matter but Pearl does an excellent job weaving the mystery through the prose (and the somewhat pompous and self-important posturing of some of the main characters. I've never met a "literary giant" in person but these guys...yeeesh.). The author presents a well-written and fascinating glimpse into some of the premier literary figures of the age, outlining the historic details of their personal struggles, ambitions and petty rivalries (E.A. Poe's spiteful resentment of and rivalry with the Boston intellectuals of the Dante Club for instance). Into this worthy mix, Pearl skillfully threads a very believable and well-plotted mystery that does a very good job of catching and keeping your interest high throughout the book while dragging the literary greats on a intricate journey into their own private Hell in pursuit of the killer.
Don't read this book expecting the usual "serial killer thriller", it is more thoughtful, more evocative and the themes more mythic then expected. As an added bonus, the background on Dante, his life and times, and the literary structure of the Inferno is well worth a look. I hadn't read Dante since high school but I found myself reading and re-reading the Dante quotes very attentively. Time changes all literary works for a reader and now, approaching the mid-point of my own life, it may be that Dante says new things to me that warrent a second look.
Interested in learning more? Check out the World of Dante here, and be sure to visit the DigitalDante site (which includes the complete version of the Divine Comedy online).
You can see what the real-world Dante Club eventually evolved into here or visit the book's own website here for a sneak peek (not to be confused with this Dante Club)..
Learn about historic Boston here, or check out Harvard here.
For a Sci-fi writers take on Hell, check out Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's book Inferno.
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