In the ingenious new literary mystery The Dante Club, someone with intimate knowledge of The Divine Comedy appears to be staging murders that mirror the punishments of Dante's "Inferno." Considering that the prodigiously clever first-time author, Matthew Pearl, is a Harvard- and Yale-educated Dante scholar who won a 1998 prize from the Dante Society of America, it is fortunate that he was content with simply writing a book... Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition. Among its many sidelights are the attack by Dr. Louis Agassiz of Harvard upon Darwin's theory of evolution; a discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act and its consequences; the resistance faced by Italian immigrants, who number only about 300 in the Boston area in 1865; and the killing of Dr. George Parkman by John W. Webster, a crime that still haunts Holmes. Most vivid is the battle between the Harvard Corporation and the principals' artistic freedom. "I do not understand how you can put your good name, everything you've worked for your whole life, on the line for something like this,"says Manning, who has threatened to shut down Lowell's Dante class. And Lowell replies: "Don't you wish to heaven you could?" Mr. Pearl, with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both.
Janet Maslin - New York Times
Many American devotees may not know that they owe their first translation of The Divine Comedy to another great poet: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The bard gave the New World not only its first taste of the Italian poet but, with Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, its first Dante Society. This is the setting for Matthew Pearl's ambitious novel, The Dante Club.... Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike.
Wall Street Journal
Pearl, while still in his 20s, has written an erudite and entertaining account of Dante's violent entrance into the American canon. His novel describes how the distinguished founders of a Dante Club at Cambridge in 1865 become embroiled in a gruesome set of murders inspired by the punishments of The Inferno. Pearl's heroes are charmingly eccentric. James Russell Lowell smokes cigars while bathing and reaches for his rifle at slight provocation. The compulsive but kindhearted narcissist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes as much for profit as for inspiration. The club leader, stoic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, does not sleep at night. In addition to the Pickwick-like central cast, cultural celebrities Louis Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. figure in the highbrow misadventures. — Joseph Luzzi
Joseph Luzzi - Los Angeles Times
The serial murderer who draws gory inspiration from the torments of Dante's Inferno has cropped up in thrillers before—Michael Dibdin's A Rich Full Death and Thomas Harris's Hannibal—but Pearl's ingenious notion is to set his début novel in Boston in 1865, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were translating Dante into English. As they work through the cantos, the Dante-inspired corpses arrive on cue, and the versifiers must turn detective. Pearl, a Harvard graduate and Dante enthusiast, is at his best when discussing "The Divine Comedy" but is less suited to the generic demands of the thriller, which leads to obvious, and gruesome, B-movie plotting. He also has a fine sense of the period, but he overdoes things; the characters cannot walk down the street without tripping over some famous historical personage.
The New Yorker
Though [the] characters are shaped by rich detail, they remain a bit wooden, and their involvement with the police investigation seems contrived. Still, the book provides an imaginative look into the private lives of some of our country's most famous poets and the Boston publishing industry that shaped their careers.
A serial killer is loose in this historical novel set in 1865 Boston. Strangely, the murderer kills his victims using the tortures described in Dante's Inferno. The Dante Club, whose members include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, meet weekly to edit the first English translation of Dante's poem. These literary men soon realize that the murderer is using their translation as a model for his crimes and decide to search for the killer. John Seidman's narration of Pearl's debut novel is clear and easy to understand; recommended for public and academic libraries. —Ilka Gordon, Medical Lib., Fairview General Hosp.
(Starred Review) Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery. The year is 1865. The eponymous Club, whose members include Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, meet regularly to plan promoting American interest in Dante's masterpiece (by now Longfellow's translation is well underway). But Harvard's tenacious devotion to its classical curriculum discourages such eclecticism ("Italy is a world of the worst passions and loosest morals"). Moreover, several violent murders clearly inspired by punishments meted out to sinners in Dante's Inferno claim highly visible victims (a Massachusetts Chief Justice, a prominent clergyman, a wealthy art patron). The scholars therefore turn detectives, bumping heads with, among others, Boston's harried police chief, "mulatto" patrolman Nicholas Rey, and "minor Pinkerton detective" Simon Camp. Crucial clues to the killer's identity lurk in information possessed by a "disgraced" professor, entomological research performed by botanist Louis Agassiz, a series of sermons attended by wounded Civil War veterans, and standing evidence (so to speak) of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Author Pearl, a 26-year-old Yale Law School graduate and Dante scholar, offers a wealth of entertaining detail, but his fictional skills need sharpening: there are a few confusing shifts in viewpoint; in at least one scene a character speaks up before we've been told that he's present; and the eventual capture of the villain is inexplicably interrupted by a lengthy omniscient account of his personal history and developing motivations. Most readers will forgive such lapses, however—thanks to an intricate and clever plot, and the author's distinctive characterizations of the gentle, courtly Longfellow, quick-tempered Lowell, and mercurial, ironical Holmes. Great fun figuring out whodunit and why: a devil of a time.
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