The Dante Club
By Matthew Pearl
Published by Random House, 2003
The Dante Club is set in Boston in 1865, in the months following the American Civil War. America’s great poet, Longfellow, is joined by a select group of famous friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, J. T. Fields and George Washington Greene, to produce the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. it’s a project that faces a great deal of opposition from the Harvard Corporation, which is trying to derail it. To make matter worse, a series of grisly murders, each modeled on a punished described in Dante’s Inferno, rocks Boston. Can the Club stop the murders and, more importantly, save their translation project?
Matthew Pearl’s first novel is an interesting concept, but suffers from an only okay execution. It seemed to spend a long time getting on its feet, in spite of the first murder happening early in the book, and I was constantly nagged by doubts about facts presented in the story. For example, it takes place in winter--the murderer attempts to kill two people in the frozen Charles River--but Cochliomyia hominivorax, or screw-worm fly, is an important part of the mystery and is seen buzzing about throughout the story. How could this tropical insect be flying around a New England winter? I realize it was imported from Southern swamps, but the cold alone should have caused it to become dormant. And what about the loss of funding to veteran halls? The war had only ended that spring. I doubt all the troops had even been demobilized at the time the story is supposed to have happened and already the funds are drying up? Nitpicking? I don’t think so. These things took me out of the story. Actually, I wasn’t drawn much into the story. The only chapter I really found engrossing was when we were told the history of the killer. I don’t think that was because he was an interesting character, he wasn’t really; rather it was because it was told in a condensed, straightforward manner. Too much of the rest of the novel is spent weaving a tangled web of clues and misdirection, little of it really paying off.
The best thing to come out of the novel is that I have decided to put Dante on my to-read list. In looking at different translations, however, I did discover that British translations were available in the US at the time this story takes place. What Longfellow and company were actually trying to create a specifically American literature, with specifically American translations. This is the generation that introduce America’s peculiar spelling habits (color instead of colour, for example). Scholarship was a poor second to nation building. Oh, I also discovered that Greene was the group’s language scholar. You wouldn’t know that from this book.