Synopses & Reviews
Words can bleed.
In 1865 Boston, the literary geniuses of the Dante Club poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J. T. Fields are finishing America’s first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard College are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of foreign superstitions into American minds will prove as corrupting as the immigrants arriving at Boston Harbor.
The members of the Dante Club fight to keep a sacred literary cause alive, but their plans fall apart when a series of murders erupts through Boston and Cambridge. Only this small group of scholars realizes that the gruesome killings are modeled on the descriptions of Hell's punishments from Dante's Inferno. With the lives of the Boston elite and Dante's literary future in America at stake, the Dante Club members must find the killer before the authorities discover their secret.
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and an outcast police officer named Nicholas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, must place their careers on the line to end the terror. Together, they discover that the source of the murders lies closer to home than they ever could have imagined.
The Dante Club is a magnificent blend of fact and fiction, a brilliantly realized paean to Dante's continued grip on our imagination, and a captivating thriller that will surprise readers from beginning to end.
"Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery....Great fun figuring out whodunit and why: a devil of a time." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[A] dazzler of a debut novel...a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting that immerses the listener in another time and sensibility....Smart, exciting entertainment." BookPage
"The detective story is well plotted, and Pearl's recreation of the contentious world of mid-19th-century academia is engrossing, even though some of its more ambitious elements...are somewhat clunky....[A]n ambitious and often entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr." Publishers Weekly
"This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term 'thrilling' genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths." Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost
"A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history." Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost
"[I]ngenious....Mr. Pearl, with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems...to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"[A]n absorbing and dramatic period piece. Using historical figures in a mystery setting is not a new idea...but Pearl has proven himself a master." Library Journal
"Matthew Pearl is the new shining star of literary fiction a heady, inventive, and immensely gifted author. With intricate plots, classical themes, and erudite characters...what's not to love?" Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code
"Pearl...is at his best when discussing The Divine Comedy but is less suited to the generic demands of the thriller, which leads to obvious, and gruesome, B-movie plotting." The New Yorker
"This novel is as erudite as it is bloody....The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak." The Baltimore Sun
"Though polished and well crafted, the book does occasionally suffer from excess verbiage....Pearl's great service to Dante ultimately resides in his talent of integrating The Divine Comedy into the flow of his characters' lives." Los Angeles Times
"The book is endlessly clever it even has a carriage chase that will come in handy if the novel comes to the screen. Pearl pokes fun at politicians and at academics like himself." Houston Chronicle
"In case Jerry Bruckheimer is reading this, here's the pitch: It's Super Friends
meets 19th-century American literature! Matthew Pearl's debut novel, The Dante Club
, is an audacious and captivating, if flawed, new book that imagines a string of unspeakable murders in Boston, each influenced by Dante's Inferno
....Pearl's Dante scholarship is truly admirable, and hats off to anyone who's this passionate about the crazy Florentine or, indeed, to anyone who's this passionate about anything
." Adrienne Miller, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
In 1865 Boston, the literary geniuses of the Dante Club are finishing America's first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. This is a magnificent blend of fact and fiction, a brilliantly realized paean to Dante's continued grip on imagination, and a captivating thriller that will surprise readers from beginning to end.
The New York Times Bestseller
Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dantes Inferno. Only an elite group of Americas first Dante scholars—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields—can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dantes literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer.
About the Author
Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American Literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School, where he wrote the first draft of The Dante Club. In 1998, he won the prestigious Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America for his scholarly work. He is also the editor of the new Modern Library edition of Dante's Inferno, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Dante Club is his first novel. He can be reached via his website, www.thedanteclub.com.
Reading Group Guide
These questions, discussion topics and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of The Dante Club
, a historical thriller that can be seen as the story of one of America’s first and most courageous book clubs. We hope this guide will add to your enjoyment of this suspenseful and unique novel about the power of literature.
1. Discuss how the various characters benefit intellectually and professionally from their association with the “Dante Club” reading and translation group. How is the group similar to book clubs now popular throughout the United States? How does it differ?
2. (Follow-up) What’s the secret of the power of collective reading? Compare the dynamic of the Dante Club to your own book club or reading group.
3. The death of Fanny Longfellow leads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to take “refuge” in his translation of Dante. Discuss why Dante in particular seems to help him through his dark period. How is his sanctuary affected by the outbreak of violence from that same work of literature?
4. (Follow-up) Are there ways in which literature has provided a refuge in your own lives at difficult or confusing times?
5. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante’s poetic idol Virgil leads him through the dangerous passages of the afterlife. In what ways do the characters of THE DANTE CLUB guide one other? Who would you say is the real leader?
6. How does the backdrop of the American Civil War influence the events of the novel?
7. Did you guess who the murderer was before it was revealed?
8. (Follow-up) Come on, did you really?
9. (Follow-up 2) What are the ways in which the author “misdirected” the reader from the murderer? Or, if you had correct suspicions, what tipped you off? In what ways were the murderer’s motives surprising? What do they reveal about the exploration of different types of “reading” that runs throughout the novel?
10. Discuss some of the instances in modern culture in which an artistic work — music, film or literature — seemed to have some impact on inspiring a crime. Some examples: Mark David Chapman carrying “The Catcher in the Rye” when he shot John Lennon; the Columbine killers supposedly drawing inspiration from Marilyn Manson songs and the video game “Doom”; several instances of people imitating “Natural Born Killers” in robberies and shootings. In that last instance, John Grisham led a campaign to prove Oliver Stone held responsibility after a friend of Grisham’s was killed. Is the work of art ever to blame? Do the murders in THE DANTE CLUB stem from the brutality of INFERNO?
11. (Follow-up) Should the Dante Club members have revealed the source of violence to the public? What was at stake besides their reputations?
12. Discuss Patrolman Nicholas Rey's role in the challenges facing the Dante Club, with consideration for Rey's status as a type of "exile" in Boston, and how this fits into the larger story.
13. Discuss the character of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Why does he emerge as the character in the novel with the heaviest burden? What elements of his personal background make the events of the story so disruptive and frightening to Holmes?
14. (Follow-up) Discuss Dr. Holmes’s relationship with his son, Wendell Junior. How does it compare or differ from James Russell Lowell’s relationship with his daughter, Mabel Lowell?
15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the “gallery” of THE DANTE CLUB website (www.thedanteclub.com). Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?
15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the “gallery” of THE DANTE CLUB website (www.thedanteclub.com). Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?
A Conversation with Matthew Pearl, author of THE DANTE CLUB
Q: Was there a historical Dante Club?
MP: Yes, and it was indeed centered around Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s most revered poet of the 19th century. Longfellow had begun to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy as a way of coping with his wife’s tragic death. His friends and colleagues, many of whom Longfellow had inspired to read Dante, rallied around him. They called themselves the “Dante Club” and included poet and Harvard professor James Russell Lowell, author and editor Charles Eliot Norton, poet and publisher J. T. Fields, poet and Harvard medical professor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, author and editor William Dean Howells, and Revolutionary War historian George Washington Greene. I couldn’t quite fit them all into the novel in a satisfactory way, however, and so Norton and Howells make only brief appearances. The members of the club would meet every Wednesday night at Longfellow’s house in Cambridge (which we can still visit!) to look over and critique Longfellow’s latest translations, and then adjourn for supper, often remaining until one or two in the morning. This somewhat informal group eventually inspired the formation of the Dante Society of America in 1881.
Q: What kind of research did you do to reconstruct the world of 1865 Boston?
MP: The central historical figures in the novel were writers — so lucky for me (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) they wrote down everything. Letters, journals, notes, memoirs, I had endless entrances into their lives. I always find their comments about one another most intriguing and revealing, particularly when they’re critical about their friends. As for the rest of the world of 1865, everything helps. Historical maps, contemporary accounts of daily life, newspaper articles. When you’re writing historical fiction, you want to know what your characters would have had for breakfast, what kind of hats they would wear, how they might greet each other if meeting on the street.
Q: The novel is historical fiction. The historical circumstances of 1865 Boston and post-Civil War literary circles are interspersed throughout. What are the fictional elements of the novel, and did it ever seem as though they were intruding on the historical elements?
MP: As a writer of historical fiction, I believe you don’t want to fictionalize gratuitously, you want the fictional aspects to prod and pressure the history into new and exciting reactions. In The Dante Club, a series of murders, modeled after the punishments in Dante’s Inferno, disrupt life in Boston and Cambridge. This outbreak is the primary fiction of the novel, in addition, obviously, to the challenge it presents to the members of the Dante Club to react. However, I see this as very organic to the material. Dante, after all, designed his story as one in which a poet (that is, Dante himself), not a soldier or warrior, must descend into the bleak and horrifying terrain of Hell as the first step toward growth and redemption. I wanted to arrange a parallel descent for the Dante Club, to force them to confront the abyss present in their own day and society. Which really brings the fiction back to history: directly after the Civil War, crime and murder rapidly increased in American cities. So while the Dante murders are fictional, they reflect a very real, new sense of violence that had to be confronted at all levels of American culture.
Another example of fiction in the novel is the character of Nicholas Rey, the first African-American policeman in Boston. Although he is fictional, his situation comes from my research into the historical circumstances of early non-white police in the 19th century. I make a distinction between “accurate” and “authentic” when writing. Even when I’m not accurate, that is factual, I always try to be authentic.
Q: One review said the novel’s murders are gruesome enough to make Stephen King flinch. Is that true?
MP: I don’t think they’re quite that bloody! Part of what’s gripping about violence in narrative is that it often harbors secrets. Indeed, Dante’s Inferno is brimming with secret lives (and deaths) of its characters. The Dante murders jolt the Dante Club out of their steady and safe literary careers. As James Russell Lowell remarks in the novel, while they were translating Dante into ink, someone else translates Dante into blood. The violence is a signal of the power of literature — of the way in which literature can escape our control. Personally, I’m not a violent person at all. I’m a vegetarian! But if you see Stephen King, please give him a copy of the book and ask him what he thinks.
Q: Does a reader have to be familiar with Dante to enjoy The Dante Club?
Absolutely not! There are no prerequisites for the novel. I worked very hard with the goal of creating an engrossing story, whether or not you’ve ever read Dante or ever will. That said, I’m always excited to hear that the novel does end up making some readers want to read (or reread) Dante, or to rediscover Longfellow and his poetic peers of the 19th century. The characters in the novel are driven by a passion in literature, and so if the novel itself helps foster that passion in someone else, that’s an added bonus.
Q: You wrote the first draft of the novel while at Yale Law School, and then worked full time on the novel after receiving your law degree in 2000. Do you plan on practicing law?
MP: I was fortunate that Yale has a very open and creative law school. I took many courses outside the law school and every semester the students had a literature reading group. I was asked to lead one on “Dante and the Concept of Justice” and it was around that time that I began writing the novel. Being a law student meant constantly thinking about justice and punishment, in relation to the legal system and outside of it. This intersected with my literary interests in Dante, and I think both threads can be seen in The Dante Club. Although I don’t plan to practice law, I don’t feel I’ve left it completely behind. Recently, I wrote an article for Legal Affairs magazine on “Dante and the Death Penalty,” discussing how Dante’s use of justice sheds light on our debates about capital punishment.
Q: Although the events take place in 1865, the issues within the book feel very topical. Do you see a relation between the story of The Dante Club and any current trends or events?
MP: Definitely. Whether it’s the Columbine massacre or the assassination of John Lennon, we’re constantly asking ourselves whether art (literature, music, movies) can influence people to commit violence. And if so, then what? Do we prohibit that work of art? That’s a question the Dante Club must ask themselves. We have to ask ourselves how our communities can become healthier readers and audience members.
Q: Alexa.com recently listed The Dante Club as the number one bestselling book for reading groups. Is there something specific about the novel that would appeal to book clubs?
MP: I like to think of the novel as, in a way, being about a book club. The Dante Club was one of America’s most important book clubs, as their Wednesday night meetings ultimately led to our country’s first exposure to Dante’s poetry on a wide scale. There’s a remarkable power about reading together, reading collectively, that’s brought out by reading groups.
Q: What has been surprising about your experience of having the book published?
MP: Well, I’ve been contacted by some descendents of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, two of the central figures who appear in the novel, expressing their delight at the novel and thanking me for bringing their ancestors to life. I lived with those characters for so long as part of my life it’s strange to actually hear from their families!
Q: With the release of The Dante Club, you have also helped reissue a new edition of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno from Modern Library, for which you wrote a preface. How does Longfellow’s translation hold up these days?
MP: Longfellow’s translation is one of the most important, as it was the first translation of the Divine Comedy into English by an American. Since Longfellow was so famous, readers paid attention. The translation managed to introduce Dante to the country for the first time when it was published in 1867. Ironically, it did such a good job of inserting Dante into our culture, many translations followed and pushed Longfellow’s into obscurity. In fact, Longfellow’s translation had been out of print for over forty years until Modern Library reissued it alongside The Dante Club. Longfellow’s version is still one of the most accurate and faithful to Dante’s text. Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill said he thought Longfellow’s was the best translation of Dante into English ever produced. I think it’s time to rediscover this remarkable product of America’s literary explorers!
From the Hardcover edition.