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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl is a novel that focuses on a series of murders including that of Chief Justice Artemus Healey. The chief justice is murdered because of his neutrality about the issue of runaway slaves. After Healey’s death, Reverend Talbot and several other people are killed.

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The Dante Club consists of poets who are working on an English version of the Divine Comedy. The members notice the similarities the murders have with those in Dante’s Inferno. As a result, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, non-fictional characters, embark on solving the crimes with the fear that Dante’s reputation may diminish in the United States if people learned about the murders. As the story progresses, it is discovered that the murderer is ex-army man Dan Teal.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546

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 seen at the house of one of the victims a few days before his murder, the Harvard Corporation treasurer who tries to prevent Longfellow from publishing his translation ofThe Divine Comedy, and even one of the members of the Dante Club could have the motive or the means to carry out the murders. Moreover, there are occasional nods to the nineteenth century mystery genre. Oliver Wendell Holmes periodically exhibits the reasoning and attention to detail that are characteristic of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. The author who arguably invented detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, is also referred to more than once in this novel.

The poets’ task of resolving the murders is made more urgent, and thus the novel gains a stronger element of suspense, when Longfellow surmises that the unknown killer is racing them to “translate” the Inferno into blood before the poets can translate it into English. Why the completion of the one should prevent, or even be linked to, the completion of the other is unclear. As if to compensate for the weakness of this device, the novel eventually places some of the poets in the clutches of the murderer. It is at this point that the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief is especially tested.

Besides using the mystery genre to explore Dante, Pearl also seeks to offer social commentary about the United States in the immediate wake of the Civil War. He details in graphic terms some of the horrors of the battlefields and, through the primary characters, illustrates the rending of friendships and families caused by the war. One character exhibits clear signs of what would later be called post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost inevitably, given the subject of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the novel touches on nineteenth century divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Issues of immigration and nativism are also explored.

It is the era’s racial attitudes, however, which are given particular prominence. The story keeps returning to race relations and laws, repeatedly referencing such topics as the Fugitive Slave Act. In addition, a central character in the novel is Nicholas Rey, a Boston patrolman who happens to be the city’s first African American police officer. Rey, the author explains in a “historical note” at the end of the novel, is a fictional character “who faces the very real challenges of the first African American policemen in the 19th century.” In the story, Rey encounters hostility from some fellow officers and detectives and is abandoned by white politicians and other officials who pander to the prevailing public prejudices. Rey bears up under this burden with a stoicism, strength, and dignity that can seem to the reader to be overdone, reminiscent of the one-dimensionally noble characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or a work by English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Rey doggedly pursues the unknown killer, even after being dismissed from the case by the detectives and other police officials. Though he rivals the poets in his ability to discern and pursue clues in the case, he is more swept up in the events than he is an untangler of them.

It is clear that the author has an abiding appreciation for Dante’s Divine Comedy and a desire to increase public awareness of the author’s work. He manages to illuminate the genius of Dante and the importance of the Inferno without being showy. It appears that his central goal is to illustrate the significance of Dante to human society, and he does this through the voices of the characters of the Dante Club. For example, Lowell is heard to say that “Dante’s Hell is part of our world as much as part of the underworld, and shouldn’t be avoided, but rather confronted. We sound the depths of Hell very often in this life.” At times the author’s use of the poets to enlighten the reader about Dante seems somewhat forced, as the poets are made to explain to one another facts about Dante and his poem which they surely would already know. The author can be forgiven for this and similar awkward devices because of his earnestness in teaching about Dante without seeming pedantic. In what could well be the author’s autobiographical comment, Pearl pauses in his narrative to tell the reader that “Dante’s faith was so perfect, so unyielding, that a reader found himself compelled by the poetry to take it all to heart.”

As a historical novel, the book provides glimpses of the nineteenth century United States in general and the poets of the Dante Club in particular. Although the book is fiction, the author strives to be “historically faithful” to the characters and their times. The novel is extraordinarily well-researched and reflects not just the author’s considerable familiarity with his material but also his affection for it. Pearl incorporates material from the poets’ actual journals, letters, poems, and other writings, and he based descriptions of the environs on his own visits to the poets’ homes and neighborhoods.

In this, his first novel, Matthew Pearl has produced a reasonably engaging mystery with a somewhat less than satisfying resolution. The reader who anticipates that the intricate and highly dramatic murders would be spawned by some nefarious cause or brilliant criminal mind may in the end be disappointed. However, the attention to atmosphere and the highly literate subject matter make this book at once entertaining, enlightening, and thought-provoking.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 6 (November 15, 2002): 577.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 22 (November 15, 2002): 1650.

Library Journal 127, no. 20 (December 1, 2002): 180.

The New York Times Book Review, February 7, 2003, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly 249, no. 40 (October 7, 2002): 50.

The San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 2003, p. M6.

The Washington Post, February 9, 2003, p. BW10.

World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September, 2003): 98.

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