THE DANTE CLUB by Matthew Pearl

Book Quote:

“I’m afraid, Doctor, that while Mr. Fields knows what people read, he shall never quite understand why.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster  (JUN 30, 2011)

You could classify The Dante Club loosely as historical fiction. Or perhaps, try historical-fantasy-fiction-literary-murder-mystery. It’s definitely a work to be enjoyed by “literary types,” but also by thrill-seekers, detective buffs, psychological and social analysts and in fact anyone who enjoys a good read.

The setting is Boston in 1865, the main protagonists include the real-life characters of a group of poets. At the time of the action they are unified by the project of translating into English (for the first time in America) Inferno by Dante. They include Oliver Wendell Holmes (poet, author and medical doctor), J.T. Fields (notable publisher), James Russell Lowell (poet, professor and editor), George Washington Green (historian and minister), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (poet). When a series of spectacularly grisly murders hit the sleepy crime scene in Boston, they start to become aware that the crimes are copy-cat renderings of some of the punishments meted out to sinners in the very Inferno they are working on. As only a handful of people have any knowledge of the work in question, the list of suspects is effectively pared down to members of the club, and a few others. Rumbling in the background are the after-shocks and repercussions of the recent Civil War.

Already, some readers have probably been put off by the list of heavy-duty literary characters. They shouldn’t be. You don’t need to know anything about the protagonists further than what is given to you on the page, and their personalities are not only lively but jumping out of the book with individuality. As a murder mystery the piece is perfectly balanced. The focus of possibility of guilt moves continually, silently – the reader is never left idle for speculation. The action is vivid, the murders horrific and bizarre. There are no spurious red-herrings thrown in for the sake of it. The denouement is thoroughly satisfying in every way.

The rounded sub-plots are almost all instrumental to the dual purpose of further fleshing out the characters and in revolving the possible finger or guilt. Holmes’s fear of loss of literary fame and his lack of empathy with his son, Longfellow’s grief for the loss of his wife, Lowell’s embattlement with the Harvard authorities over the validity of teaching Dante (and modern language works in general), as well as his suicidal tendencies. Patrolman Rey (Boston’s first Black police officer) and his difficulties as a figure of authority in a racially divided society, and Augustus Manning’s maniacal obsession of bringing the University and press under his control. They are all brought together in an extremely solid framework where the reader will step firmly, even if the territory is unfamiliar.

But what relevance, I hear a myriad silent voices quizzing, are either Boston in the 1860s or the works of a 14th century poet? The core thread to both the Boston story and Pearl’s central theme lies in the work of the Inferno itself.

It is an undisputable fact that everyone who has the slightest knowledge of Inferno finds it at the very least memorable – probably on a level they don’t even realise. And Inferno is exceedingly well known. My own most vivid recollections of other works derivative of Dante’s Hell are the 1995 film “Se7en” and the 2005 TV drama “Messiah: the Harrowing,” but the briefest search on Wiki for “Dante and his Divine Comedy in Popular Culture” throws up page after page of references. Dante has made his way into the TV series “Angel” and into “Futurama.” He’s in video games, art and sculpture, music – and of course, literature. In this sense, The Dante Club is not in the least an esoteric book.

Why are we so fond of Dante? Certainly, the punishments in Inferno are grim, and there is no age throughout history in which we have not derived a macabre thrill from pure and bloody spectacle. This is not the cause of its popularity. If it were, we would all be reading torture accounts from the Spanish Inquisition instead. The appeal is in the precise reason it was written: a yearning for justice. Any class or race of human has an inbuilt auto-response system to the myriad of inevitable injustices, great or small, to themselves or to others. “That’s not fair!” is often chased fast by the thought “This is how it should be.” It is the meting out of punishments in an appropriate way (Dante’s contrapasso) that is irresistible to the human psyche. And it is precisely this that is Pearl’s theme. The series of murders are for a long period incomprehensible, but through the key of Dante they are shown to be composed from an almost autistically accurate logic. It is perhaps no coincidence that after graduating from Harvard in English and American Literature, Pearl went straight on to take a Law degree at Yale Law School.

There are some disconcerting aspects to the book. These mainly stem from the dichotomy between extremely well-researched, knowledgeable, fact-based fiction on the one hand and the occasional (but crucial) forgery here and there. It throws the reader off balance a little. Pearl knows his literary characters very well, and their behaviour rings true to what one would expect. The scene is Boston is extremely convincing and is no doubt based on intimate knowledge of the place and its history. However, the notion of the characters in question being involved in this type of criminal investigation is nothing short of preposterous, and the concepts of applied psychology and forensic logic which are brought to play are completely anachronistic. We are left teetering a little at the realisation that the writer is assuming we don’t need to be told what’s fact and what’s fiction: we’re grown-ups and understand that we’re listening to a story that simply uses these vehicles.

So far, we’ve established that it’s a good story, relevant to today, and accessible to a non-literary audience. Now for the caveat. You will enjoy this book ten times more if you are familiar with Inferno on some reasonably detailed textual level. The greatest strength of The Dante Club is the incredible interweaving of the plot on both the levels of the Boston scene and Dante’s exiled imaginings. Quite a number of reviews state that the book “starts off slowly” – this despite the first murder being mentioned on page 1, the first maggoty corpse discovered on page 8, and the first suicide leaping to a gory death on page 28. What they mean is, you don’t understand what’s going on for a good while. This is true, on a plot level. On a metatextual level, the plot is progressing at breakneck speed. The skill and accuracy of quotations and resonances between the two works, within the framework of immaculate modern prose, is the true delight of this novel.

This facet of Pearl’s craft reaches a jaw-dropping peak in a passage late on in the work. The poet-investigators chase after one of the “printer’s devils” in the dead of winter, across a frozen lake. The scene of Lowell grabbing the nearly-submerged “devil” by his curly red locks and demanding explanation brings the 9th circle of hell possibly more vividly to life than Dante did himself, as it is a palimpsest of not only several related scenes in Inferno but the Boston scene as well. The union of all the references and implications in the context of the narrative left me frankly queasy with admiration. Pearl has tried to disambiguate by introducing this particular point in Dante’s narrative just before the incident (there is, literally, a lecture on it), and it is followed up shortly after by another, even plainer rendering on the same theme. Hopefully non-Danteans will pick up on the superficial reference, but I fear a great deal of the force of the words will melt unless aided by a little more knowledge. Pearl himself is a kind of opposite to Patrolman Rey, who hears a piece of Dante quoted to him but cannot understand it, only endure the apprehension of knowing its grave importance. “He remembered the whisperer’s grip stretch across his skull. He could hear the words form so distinctly, but was without the power to repeat any of them.” Pearl by contrast cannot help but repeat them, through the medium of his story.

This extreme marriage between the two texts, or rather the bond between Pearl himself and the text of the Comedia (for his work on which he won the 1998 Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America) is perhaps more apparent than even the author realises. Pearl’s prose is without exception polished, educated and perfectly presented. However it is always in the scenes that refer (in whatever way) back to Dante that are extraordinary in their skill. If you don’t know your Dante, it’s a very accurate way of guessing which parts are alluding to Inferno. If you read a sentence and think “wow that’s vivid” or “what a strange way to put things” – it’s probably echoing Dante. This is not in any way to belittle Pearl’s own words or to suggest excessive reliance on another work. It is merely very evident that the true inspiration for the work are the words of Dante, and it is these that ignite Pearl’s own words as if suddenly doused in petrol when they hit the page with the force of his empathy.

For anyone unfamiliar with Inferno, here are some brief pointers (much more is explained within the book). Dante is journeying through Hell on a sort of tourist visa, and passes through the ante-hell and nine circles of it, which are arranged according to the punishments awarded various types of sinners. The outer circles are for lesser sins, the ninth circle is reserved for traitors and Satan himself, along with Judas Iscariot. In The Dante Club, by a certain arbitrary process only some of the circles are dealt with. Unfortunately, detailing the sins and their punishments here would only spoil (both) books for the reader. It will have to suffice to compare yet another Dante-related work: Milton’s Paradise Lost. If Milton tries to “justify the ways of God to Man,” and Dante might be said on some level to justify the ways of Man to God, Pearl is perhaps trying to justify the ways of Man to Man. The question: what can turn decent people into unspeakable torturers, is one that is as pertinent to this day as it was in the 14th century, and will continue to be so long after we are gone.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 362 readers
PUBLISHER: Ballantine Books; Reprint edition (June 27, 2006)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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June 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Literary, Mystery/Suspense, NE & New York

One Response

  1. PattisPages - July 7, 2011

    I enjoyed the literary content, but this book was a little slow for me.

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