Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Dante Club

Read Matthew Pearl's novel The Dante Club a week or two ago at the urging of my good friend Levi Asher. It's a fun mystery. The premise is that the first American translator of Dante, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his literary fellows (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and others), in the course of their translation work become aware that a serial murderer is patterning his crimes after scenes from Inferno. The catch is that Dante is largely untranslated on these shores -- making Longfellow and Co. themselves prime suspects, a fact which, if revealed to the police would incriminate them and put their beloved (as yet unfinished) translation in jeopardy. So poet/intellectuals must turn sleuths.

It's a well-written piece of historical fiction, drawing on the real life successes and tragedies of these nineteenth century figures and set against a country still in exhaustion from the terrors of the Civil War. Pearl actually does work on (unlike, say Dan Brown) to flesh out his characters. Details like the tragic deaths of Lowell's and Longfellow's wives add richness, and Boston and Cambridge are vividly depicted.

On the other hand, the solution to the whodunnit seemed a tiny bit of a cheat. (But I won't give any spoilers.)

Pearl is a member of the current day successor to Longfellow's "Dante Club," the Dante Society of America. Knowing the little I know about both Dante and Longfellow's time, the novel rang pretty true.

An enjoyable way to pass the time.
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