There’s much to like about The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl’s homage to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields–some of the greatest American poets of the 19th century. It is a historical thriller written with a taste of the literary, and The Dante Club has moments of chilling baroque mystery interspersed by pages of literary history told in the dialogue. It makes for a novel that feels serious, almost enough to threaten to dampen the tension of a murder mystery. And yet, in this sense, it defeated my expectations. Before I began reading, I had visions of Dan Brown’s Inferno, which, while I’ve never read, I assume was not unlike The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons: A thriller built upon secret messages encoded into literature, the deciphering of which alone can save a damsel in distress from imminent death.
There are no damsels in distress though, at least not directly. And while there are hidden messages to be deciphered, they are being elucidated by the very real poets translating the Dante’s Inferno. The story is written around the very real translation of the Inferno by the above mentioned poets. Their goal is the first English translation of the Inferno in America, and as they translate, murders begin to occur that appear to match various levels of Hell described in the Inferno. As our protagonists are poets, none of the characters is a prototypical every-man, but more likely to be stuff of Cambridge: professorial, stuffy, more interested in the meaning of 14th century Latin texts than the turmoil caused by the recently ended American Civil War. The result occasionally has stultifying effect on the sleuthing efforts of the club members. They are past their prime, and the age of modern police methodology has not arisen–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (who was rumored to be based on one of the Holmes found in The Dante Club) is still several decades away.
And yet, the literary nature of the novel will make it inaccessible to some readers. I’ve seen readers complain about entire sections remaining beyond impenetrable, baffling even, and I admit that there are sections that required multiple readings. Pearl feels to be trying too hard to be literary, and it hurts more than helps. The Dante Club has all the trappings, setting, and potential of a really great mystery, and yet, Pearl seems to occasionally forget that he doesn’t have to write like Henry James in order to give the reader the flavor of the era.
I enjoyed The Dante Club, but it’s not for everyone. Like reading a translation of a Dante’s epic poem Inferno, a price must be paid to appreciate the work, and The Dante Club requirement may be too much for some readers.