The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Medieval scholarship with a very high body count
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The Independent Culture

American debut novelist with impeccable academic credentials and planet-sized brain writes audaciously learned thriller. Heard this one before? The opening pages, and indeed the premise, of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club seem, though, to be closer in spirit to Se7en than The Secret History.

A Boston judge is discovered savagely murdered, his body swarming with maggots and blowflies. It has lain near the river for some days. The housemaid discovers what she believes is his corpse, but, as she lifts the body, the judge gasps out his dying breath. In nearby Cambridge, the Dante Club is hard at work. It's 1865 - the 600th anniversary of Dante's birth - and a grouping of enthusiasts, chaired by the poet Longfellow, is racing to finish the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. At first glance, the link between this and Judge Healey's death is unclear. But when a local Reverend is found buried, head first, in the catacombs, the soles of his feet set on fire, the club members begin to see connections between the manner of the deaths and the words of the dead poet.

It sounds terribly contrived, and it is, but the result is more successful than you might suppose, though Pearl faces a daunting task in deploying his weighty learning with a light touch. The characters which people the Dante Club, from the high-minded and statesmanlike Longfellow to his canny and commercially minded publisher, J T Fields, are well-rounded by his researches and never fail to convince. Although the plot is driven along at a relentless pace by the rising bodycount, the thematic concerns of the novel extend far beyond the mortuary.

Longfellow and his colleagues are fighting on two fronts. As well as delivering Massachussetts from a murderer, they must preserve Dante from the machinations of the Harvard Corporation, which finds the poet's writings too corrupting - far too, well, Catholic - for their tastes. Against this backdrop of moral conservatism, Pearl explores the upsurge in violence which followed the ending of a civil war that has left many of the country's citizens in a state of dereliction and division. Ranged against the "Boston Brahmins" are a cast of equally well-drawn low-lifes, several of whom become suspects.

Pearl's America is riven by racism. Patrolman Nicholas Rey, the real hero of the novel, is the first Negro police officer in New England and as such, is subject to the abuse of his fellow officers as well as the local townsfolk, both law-abiding and not. The police force's net often falls upon Boston's immigrant community, the Irish and Italians, and the sufferings of the displaced find their counterparts too in the story of Dante the exile, condemned to wander far from home.

Maybe it's the added ballast of such concerns that prevents The Dante Club from really taking flight. Or maybe it's the unfailingly accurate but sometimes stilted nature of his faux-19th-century prose. (I hate to sound like a sniggering schoolchild, but the widower's grief for his lost wife is ill-served by lines such as "He never spoke of his own Fanny".) The novel is too visceral, too sensational, to be merely an intellectual puzzle. But, as Pearl races headlong towards his conclusion, such a burden of explication may keep the reader lagging a little way behind.

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