Matthew Pearl,
The Dante Club
(Random House, 2003)

Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club is like Alan Moore's graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets the film Se7en.

Set in 1865, Harvard University, some of American literature's finest poets -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell -- have taken the daunting task of being the first to produce an American translation of the epic poem, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, much to the chagrin of many in the academic community. Despite opposition by some in academia, Longfellow and his companions press on with the translation, intent on presenting to post-Civil War America Dante's vision of hell, purgatory and heaven.

Their work, however, is quickly put to the test when dead bodies begin turning up in Boston. The community is shocked by the gruesomeness of the crimes, but it is only Longfellow's Dante Club that recognizes the graphic nature of the killings. The first body to turn up is that of Judge Artemis Healey, which had been slowly devoured by a rare breed of maggots. This is quickly followed by the only suspect diving out of a window after whispering a -- seemingly -- incomprehensible message to Nicholas Rey, Boston's first black policeman. Rey reveals the message to the Dante Club, whose members are shocked to realize that the suicidal man had whispered to Rey a line from the Inferno: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here." Afraid that the translation of Dante's poem will be cancelled if they are linked to the growing number of murders, the aging poets take it upon themselves to track down the murderer they've dubbed Lucifer.

Pearl, a very educated man, does an excellent job of incorporating true American history (Longfellow really did write a translation of the poem), many allusions to Dante's Inferno and plenty of gruesome detail to color the pages. While at times Pearl seems to weave in and out of points of view, his portrayal of the bumbling poets is endearing and it isn't hard to find yourself sympathizing with them. While I was hoping for more hellish murders, Pearl holds back, keeping an already thick book from becoming something that would no longer fit in a reader's hands. Pearl also manages to hold back on what could have been a more satisfying subplot concerning Nicholas Rey in his position as the first black policeman in post-Civil War Boston. Despite these shortcomings (and I really shouldn't call them that), the book was very enjoyable.

On a nine-fingered scale (with one being horrible and nine being fantastic) I'd have to give Pearl's first attempt at novel writing eight fingers. It's kind of slow going at first, but if you can make it over the first 100-page hump, it's all downhill from there. According to, Pearl is working on his second novel -- another 19th century mystery. I look forward to reading more of his work as soon as he puts it out.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Winkler
published 30 July 2005

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