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The Dante Club: A Novel Hardcover – February 4, 2003


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Talk about high concept: in Pearl's debut novel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell team up with 19th-century publisher J.T. Fields to catch a serial killer in post-Civil War Boston. It's the fall of 1865, and Harvard University, the cradle of Bostonian intellectual life, is overrun by sanctimonious scholars who turn up their noses at European literature, confining their study to Greek and Latin. Longfellow and his iconoclastic crew decide to produce the first major American translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Their ambitious plans are put on hold when they realize that a murderer terrorizing Boston is recreating some of the most vivid scenes of chthonic torment in Dante's Inferno. Since knowledge of the epic is limited to rarefied circles in 19th-century America, the "Dante Club" decides the best way to clear their own names is to match wits with the killer. The resulting chase takes them through the corridors of Harvard, the grimy docks of Boston Harbor and the subterranean labyrinths of the metropolis. It also gives Pearl an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that he's done his history homework. 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 like an examination of intellectual hypocrisy and insularity in the Ivy League are somewhat clunky. There are, as well, some awkward attempts to replicate 19th-century prose ("But for Holmes the triumph of the club was its union of interests of that group of friends whom he felt most fortunate to have"). Still, this is an ambitious and often entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Pearl's fiction debut should please fans of well-crafted literary mysteries. The title refers to an actual group of 19th-century Bostonians who gathered to translate Dante's Inferno for an American audience. Among the members of this exclusive "club" were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, and poet James Russell Lowell. While poring over the poem, the men find themselves on the trail of a serial killer who tortures his victims in ways that seem to be taken straight out of the pages of Inferno. The police are at a loss and must rely on the club members' unique knowledge of Dante's work to help catch the killer. Pearl, a recognized Dante scholar, uses his expertise to create an absorbing and dramatic period piece. Using historical figures in a mystery setting is not a new idea (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton plays detective in Philip Kerr's Dark Matter), but Pearl has proven himself a master. Best for medium to large public and academic libraries.
--Laurel Bliss, Yale Arts Lib.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 372 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (February 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375505296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375505294
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (391 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #219,626 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

This historical fiction is a well written debut novel by Matthew Pearl.
Love Historical Fiction
This is one of those books that I actually forced myself to stop reading at times because I didn't want to finish it too quickly.
brewster22
It was slow getting started and the book's plot/action dragged itself out just a bit too much.
Kate Pugh

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

138 of 152 people found the following review helpful By Gary Griffiths VINE VOICE on February 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Every few years a book is written that breaks the mold of the standard mystery/thriller fare. Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose", Martin Cruz Smith's "Rose", more recently Boston Teran's "God is a Bullet", to name a few. "The Dante Club", the remarkable debut of writer Matthew Pearl, is another example that represents a bold, ambitious, and refreshing approach to the familiar serial killer "whodunnit".

I'll admit that at first I was somewhat leery of the concept: the Fireside Poets - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell cast as investigators of a string of horrific murders? An ambitious premise for a novel, for sure, but more aptly, bizarre and ripe with risk. Pearl, however, pulls this off with a curious combination of the poet's love of the language and the storyteller's knack for pace and action.

The "Dante Club" refers to the group assembled by Longfellow - including Holmes and Lowell - to assist him in the first American translation of Dante's "Divine Comedy". As people in high places - a judge, a minister, a wealthy merchant - turn up tortured and murdered in scenes recreating those described in Dante's classic, the poets hit the streets of Boston and Cambridge in search of the killer. The result is an exceptionally well-researched book that is rich in historical detail while capturing the post-Civil War American psyche and culture. Pearl's description of the Civil War horrors and post-war trauma is especially gripping. Not since "Silence of the Lambs" or "Se7en" have murders been so brutally and vividly portrayed, as the victims are variously eaten-alive by maggots, buried upside-down and set on fire, and (literally) cut in half.
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38 of 43 people found the following review helpful By John Lubahn on August 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Mattew Pearl's recent novel, the Dante Club, combines history, suspense, and mystery in a truly unique reading experience. Famous, well known characters such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Windell-Holmes and James Russell Lowe are intricately woven into a plot which develops around their translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Their work is disrupted however, when a series of murders in Boston are modeled after mankind's punishment in hell as described in Dante's Inferno. The murder of prominent citizens modeled after their translation make them suspect.
These noted historical authors work closely with a black police officer, Nichola Ray, to prove their innocence and solve the murders.
The vivid description of Boston in 1865 and the unique literary skill of Mattew Pearl to weave the history of the civil war and racial relations into this time period is pure genius. The words used to describe the Boston street scene at this time in history are reminiscent of Caleb Carr's description of New York City in his book the Alienist.
This book is a must for any reader who enjoys historical fiction and I would strongly recommend it to them.
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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Sean Conwell on April 4, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I've read many reviews from other people touting the "greatness" of Matthew Pearl's debut novel. While I DO agree The Dante Club is a great achievement for Pearl as it showcases his Harvard education, I can't quite stomach the absolute opaqueness the novel exudes. After reading the novel, I know more about Dante and the historical circle of Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes, but I don't have a very clear sense of the STORY, the murderous tale that is the premise of the novel. You will be absolutely blown away by the grotesquely wonderful opening of The Dante Club--maggots and all--but you'll quickly lose interest as Pearl takes you on a very long, DRY journey through a post-Civil War Boston. In a nutshell: You might get to visit the rings of Dante's Hell and appreciate Matthew Pearl's use of that classic as a launchpad for The Dante Club, but you're better served to put down--PUT DOWN!--this novel and quickly run to a more entertaining historical murder thriller like Caleb Carr's The Alienist.
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59 of 72 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I am one of those people who always gives a book a fair chance to impress or entertain me. Even if I am bored, I'll keep reading in the hopes that it will get better. This one didn't, and after getting halfway through it, I had to put myself out of my misery. I was so disgusted with it that I threw it in the trash rather than passing it on to someone else.
Before you decide that it must have been just too highbrow for me (the last person I told I hated it replied, "Danielle Steele must be more your speed"), let me say that I teach literature and my area of expertise is the Renaissance. Let me also say, to anyone who thinks of attacking from the opposite direction, that I enjoyed Caleb Carr's THE ALIENIST. And Ian McEwan, Gunter Grass, Ha Jin, Toni Morrison, and Henry James number among my favorite authors--a pretty eclectic bunch, I'd say.
Dante is not the problem, nor is the idea of a mystery involving well-known persons. It is Pearl's boringly pretentious style. He is much more impressed with his own cleverness than I could ever be with this book. Some reviews I've read marvel that this is a first book; I say, "It shows."
I'm told the ending makes it worth sticking with; but as Carly Simon said, "I haven't got time for the pain"--especially when there are so many excellent books out there I'm dying to read.
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