Pearl’s The Dante Club is a rousing success, both as an historical novel and as a murder mystery. But what elevates this novel above the rest, I felt, was Pearl’s decision to use The Divine Comedy of 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri not merely as a literary device to drive his murder plot, but as the underpinning for a broader investigation of a number of critical issues of the time. This novel takes place in Boston in 1865, where the aftershocks of the civil war are still very much in evidence. Racism is still rampant, crime and violence is widespread and growing, religious and ethnic intolerance is pervasive, and the hidebound Harvard Corporation—a favorite target of Harvard graduate Pearl—has a stranglehold on the cultural, religious, and academic life of the city. Just the kind of issues Dante himself tackled in his famous poem.
Several of the top literary minds of the city have come together to help one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, complete the first-ever American translation into English of Dante’s Commedia, a poetic trilogy detailing Dante’s metaphorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and ultimately Paradise. What makes Dante’s work unique is that it was the first serious literary work to be written in the Italian vernacular common to the people of that country—and thus accessible to them–as opposed to the Latin used among Italy’s elites. In racing to finish their translation, Boston’s Dante Club (as Longfellow and friends dub themselves) must fend off repeated sabotage efforts on the part of the Harvard Corporation, which sees the release of Dante’s masterpiece to the general American public as diluting the academic waters and threatening especially the so-called classical education which Harvard sees as its special preserve, and would keep for America’s elites alone.
It turns out that someone is murdering Boston’s top citizens in precisely the horrific ways described by Dante as he visits the tortured souls in Hell, and the Dante Club feels obliged to use its familiarity with the poem to anticipate and trap the killer, whom they call “Lucifer.” They eventually team up with Boston’s first non-white policeman, a former soldier of mixed race who has a fine investigator’s instinct but is hobbled at every turn by the prejudice surrounding him. It becomes a race to find Lucifer’s Dante source before the Club members themselves are targeted for the punishments of the “Inferno.”
Adding extra depth to the plot, I thought, were the pages Pearl devoted to harrowing first-hand accounts of civil war battle and the post-traumatic stress that afflicted so many of the survivors of that war upon their return to civilian life. My only complaint is that Pearl’s inexperience as a novelist at the time he wrote The Dante Club made for a certain anti-climactic weakness in the final pages of the novel following the denouement, but that didn’t significantly detract from the overall success of the novel.
I must confess that I was shocked at the number of readers of this book who complained of too much detail, too many literary references, and just plain boredom with Pearl’s writing. This is not your average “page-turner,” to be sure, nor is it intended as a light read. Indeed, to the author’s credit, he has taken his time and done meticulous research to be able to craft his novel for authenticity of detail on every front—from the sights and smells of 19th century Boston, to the literary circles of Longfellow and company, to the speaking style of his many different characters, down to the creative if gruesome specifics of the murders themselves. That authenticity of detail only enhanced the story, while providing much food for thought.
Finally, I would just say that you don’t have to be a lover of Dante to enjoy this book, but you will be by the time you finish it.