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Bah. A Load of Humbug.
on 31 March 2005
Once again I find myself opposite a tide of favorable opinion regarding a popular new book. I was, of course, excited to read Matthew Pearl's notable first novel, The Dante Club, both because of the many positive reviews and the historical context. I'm a sucker for historical figures in fictional situations and my tastes lean toward the lowbrow, so if the historical figures are running around solving mysteries, so much the better.
My excitement with The Dante Club, however, dissolved to dismay and ended in disgust. I have very few kind words to offer about this weak and pompous offering about Boston's foremost Dante scholars solving a series of grisly murders that mimic the punishments Dante doled out to the damned in his Inferno.
Hard to believe, but in post-Civil War America, Dante Alighieri had not yet become the college student's worst enemy. His seminal work, The Divine Comedy, had not yet been completely translated from the Italian. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher JT Fields are working on just such a project when they are approached by the police, in the person of Nicholas Rey, Boston's first black officer, with a scrap of paper on which is scrawled a phrase in Italian. The paper is related to a murder on which Rey is working. In the first of many befuddling moves, the Dante Club, as these scholars call themselves, elects to keep mum, both in the translation of the paper and when it becomes clear to them that the murders are Dante-related. In true mystery style, the group decides to investigate themselves.
It's clear that author Pearl has done scads of research about the principle characters and wanted to bring them to vivid life within the pages of The Dante Club. But it seems equally clear that this research was his undoing. He throws too much data at we poor readers, without the skill required to make it seem effortless or natural. He delves too deeply into the personal lives of Longfellow, portrayed as a spectral weakling unable to recover from his wife's death, and Holmes, who just can't seem to get along with his adult son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would go on to become one of America's foremost jurists.
These characterizations may be acurate, but the disproportionate amount of space spent recounting them is both unnecessary and distracting. Certainly, there is a secret joke in Holmes, Sr., chastising Holmes, Jr., for studying law and telling him there is no future in it, when we, from the perspective of history, know that Jr. would serve on the Supreme Court for thirty years, but it is completely unnecessary to the story. Equally frivolous is the amount of time spent examining the underbelly of academic politics.
Pearl includes a note at the end of this novel that indicates he recreated much of the language and dialogue from the "poems, essays, novels, journals, and letters of the Dante Club members and those closest to them." Ah! That would explain why most of the dialogue spoken by the Dante Club members sounds stilted, pompous and, at times, comically inept! People do not write the way they speak and, rather than bring these famous figures to life, Pearl embalms them in their own words, making them sound effete and foolish.
Most interesting is the character of Rey, the black cop, who is unwanted by his white counterparts and those he serves and protects. Though no such police officer existed in postwar Boston, Pearl uses Rey as a vehicle to introduce us to the racial difficulties arising from the Civil War. He is also useful device for prolonging the story, since, because he is black, none of Rey's fellow policement believe his theories and won't commit resources to following his investigative intuition. If he's been white, the book might have been a hundred pages shorter.
The plot itself is surprisingly reasonable. When we learn how all the pieces fit together, it makes sense and I reluctantly applaud Pearl for this. But other clunky moments are just unbelievable, like the Club's decision to stonewall the police for fear their translation of Dante will be shelved and they themselves might be considered suspects. What? Let's not help catch a violent killer so our book can be published? This is not consistent with what I know of Longfellow and his crew.
Overall, The Dante Club is a long, dull look into the pettiness of American academia with occasional spikes of interest that come with descriptions of the violent killings. It doesn't hold a candle to Caleb Carr's "The Alienist", despite what other reviewers have said.