(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The title of this novel refers to a group of Harvard University scholars who met weekly in Boston in 1865 to assist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in completing the first full-length American translation of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic work, La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). Most of the characters are real historical figures, and the Dante Club did, in fact, help Longfellow to complete his translation. The murders and the scholars’ activities in connection with them, however, are entirely fictional. It is unclear whether the author has pressed the figures into the service of his novel or whether he has used his novel to honor the scholars and the work of Dante.

The central puzzle of the novel—a sequence of bizarre murders of a handful of Boston’s elite—is largely a device to provide the author with an opportunity to describe various scenes from Dante’sInferno and to explore its meaning. The first part of Dante’s magisterial three-part narrative poemThe Divine Comedy, the Inferno describes Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell. The poem, written in the early fourteenth century, has informed Judeo-Christian conceptions of God, divine justice, and Hell perhaps more than any single source except the Bible. It is the Inferno, for example, that describes the inscription above the gates of Hell, “All hope abandon, ye who enter.”

The Dante Club opens with the discovery of a grotesque murder of a Supreme Court justice, Artemus Healey, who had been dealt a blow to the head and left outside to suffer a horrific, agonizing death of being eaten alive by maggots and wasps. Later, the novel depicts another macabre death, in which the minister of Cambridge’s Second Unitarian Church is planted head-first into a hole and his feet set afire. Both murders are described in stomach-turning detail unusual for the Victorian-style genre, although perhaps this is done as a bow to the graphic depictions in Dante’s Inferno. Eventually Longfellow, fellow poet and medical doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the three other members of the Dante Club—literature professor James Russell Lowell, publisher J. T. Fields, and retired historian George Washington Greene—come to realize that these murders mimic punishments of the damned that are portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. With the linkage thus established, the book proceeds as a mystery novel, with periodic elaboration on Dante and The Divine Comedy.

In one of the novel’s somewhat awkward contrivances, the Dante Club poets decide that they cannot go to the police with their revelation about the connection of the murders to Dante. They (somewhat callously) worry that the linkage of the murders to Dante would poison public opinion against the Italian poet and his work before the poets could complete their translation for American readers. Even less plausibly, the poets believe that they would be the prime suspects of the murders, which display such detailed knowledge of the Inferno. After all, until Longfellow’s translation is published, The Divine Comedy and Dante would be almost entirely unknown in the United States.

They resolve, therefore, to investigate the murders on their own, thus setting the stage for Victorian-era detective fiction reminiscent of the other, fictional Holmes of 221B Baker Street. Carriages are hired and raced through city streets. Kerosene lamps are carried to illuminate subterranean passages. Cryptic messages are scrawled across mansion windows. All the while, a series of clues and characters are encountered by the dogged Dante Club members.

As a mystery, the novel has the requisite number of false leads and possible suspects: The Italian immigrant who has been...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)