While I haven’t read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I have read a few books (e.g. The Last Cato) which are based on the Inferno. But being a mystery makes “The Dante Club ” by Matthew Pearl quite a different book from the others which take inspiration from Dante’s version of Hell.
In 1865, the exclusive Dante Club is meeting in Boston to compile the American translation of The Divine Comedy. The club consists of Boston intellectuals, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who is the writer of translation), Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. But when the city is rocked by murders which closely follow the punishments in Inferno, the members find themselves on the top of suspects list, because of the very exclusivity of their club.
To clear their names, the members enter the murky depths of the Boston, and try to find the killer, before he can finish his job, and drag Dante’s place even further down, in American scholarship already turning their noses up at European literature.
This is one of the rare historical fictions which puts famous names at the real centre of the book. But that also makes it interesting, since the famous authors and poets (and 19th century publisher J.T. Fields) each have their own distinct personality. The scholarly men are (as expected) separated from the actual nitty-gritty of the world around them, and their egos, intellects and ambitions all play a role in the story.
The same fact also makes it different from most mysteries. While the protagonists are without a doubt intelligent, and are probably the most knowledgeable men in the country about the serial killer’s MO, their understanding of the workings of the real world is far from perfect. And that’s what differentiates them from a typical detective – he may not know about a killer’s motives, but he is the most street smart guy in the room.
I know historical fiction is perhaps not the best way to learn about people, but members of The Dant Club have sometimes endearing, sometimes not so likeable, but always interesting personalities. And that’s one of the reasons the book pulls you in. Of course, having a delightful mystery at its heart doesn’t hurt either.
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