BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #13: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Oliver Wendell Holmes

So I’m starting a (hopefully) solid job and decided to keep my brain in fighting trim by getting back to the writing as well. To that end I picked up a bag’o’books at a yard sale. Most were installments in the Pern series by Ann McCaffrey, which I’m working my way through and may talk about at some point in the future, as they’re…odd in a few ways. But another book I picked up was The Dante Club.

I have not read the previous book, nor anything else by Matthew Pearl, but this was a decently entertaining read. It opens as three of the great wordsmiths of American History: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, are endeavoring to translate Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English for the first time, a task opposed by the influential leaders of Harvard College, who fear for the impact such “foreign” ideas will have on their students. In the middle of this power struggle, a hideous crime is discovered, one that seems to be tied to Dante’s infamous story of a man traveling through hell…

I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when I picked it up; I’ll admit with some shame that I’m not very familiar with the works of the protagonists of this book, and honestly I didn’t really feel any pull to change that after reading it. I was afraid upon reading the back that it was going to be some sort of literary version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not so-the three amigos are investigators only reluctantly, and mainly react to the events going on.

However, the world around them, and the events that draw them in to the mystery, are contrariwise well described, making the time and place of the deaths itself a character. The explanation of the Comedy and its translation is also beautiful, and did make me want to read it, ironically. The idea behind the story is not new: a killer is inspired by a famous book/painting/children’s fable/how-to manual, and an expert or team of them is set against him. It’s a pretty reliable formula, but it doesn’t work too well here, since there’s a real lack of urgency to solve the crime, and a shallowness in the characterization of most of the central players. The most interesting one is Nicholas Rey, a biracial policeman who is swept up in the case, and I got the sense he’s Pearl’s favorite character as well.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps to someone with more knowledge of the literary giants than myself, since that would probably enhance the enjoyment of this story. People interested in historical fiction might also be a good fit, since it does paint a vivid picture of post-Civil War Boston. Anyone looking for a good murder mystery should probably continue on their journey.

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