The Dante Club

The Dante Club

3.7 141
by Matthew Pearl
     
 

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The New York Times Bestseller

Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Only an elite group of America’s first Dante scholars—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields—can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives

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Overview

The New York Times Bestseller

Boston, 1865. A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante’s Inferno. Only an elite group of America’s first Dante scholars—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields—can solve the mystery. With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Matthew Pearl is the new shining star of literary fiction — a heady, inventive, and immensely gifted author. With intricate plots, classical themes, and erudite characters…what’s not to love?"
-Dan Brown

"Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition... with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both." -Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Audacious and captivating."
-Adrienne Miller, Esquire

"Mr. Pearl's triumph is mixing these two cultures: wealthy, cultivated men of letters faced with the mysterious and seedy streets of a 19th-century Boston... creating not just a page-turner but a beguiling look at the U.S. in an era when elites shaped the course of learning and publishing. With this story of the Dante Club's own descent into hell, Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike." -Kimberley Strassel, The Wall Street Journal
"Pearl, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a Dante scholar, ably meshes the literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures... A divine mystery."
-Julie K. L. Dam, People Magazine (Page Turner of the Week)

"Just about anyone who admires smart historical fiction will get a literary jolt out of Matthew Pearl’s gory first novel... His Civil War memory fragments alone add up to one of the most unforgettable accounts of that chapter of American history yet written." -Celia McGee, The New York Daily News
"How the club and the police compete and then converge is the mystery and the thrill in a preternaturally accomplished book as wise as it is entertaining. 'The Dante Club' is a carefully plotted, imaginatively shaped, and stylistically credible whodunit of unusual class and intellect... The writing is passionate, the narrative driven."
-Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe

"Pearl has achieved that intoxicating blend of reality and imagination that Doctorow gave us 25 years ago with Ragtime. Here's hoping Pearl decides to spend his career writing novels and letting that Yale law degree go to waste. The world has enough lawyers. Great novelists are in short supply."
-William Mckeen, The Orlando Sentinel

"Pearl masterfully synthesizes countless aspects of mid-19th-century life into a riveting mystery that creeps through all corners of crippled postwar Boston. To steal a revelation from the book: Lucifer did not create hell; it was Dante. In The Dante Club, Pearl adds one more diabolical ring."
-Christopher Bollen, Time Out (New York)

"This novel is as erudite as it is bloody. It swings from an account of exotic maggots eating a man alive to a discussion of the finer points of Dante's artistic and political vision. The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak."
-Chris Kidler, The Baltimore Sun

"'The Dante Club' is a richly detailed microcosm set generously before us. Within it, wit, erudition and a healthy respect for good old fashioned hugger-mugger conspire to produce one of this year's most agreeable entertainments."
-Bruce Allen, Raleigh News & Observer

"Pearl does what a good historical novelist has to do: Look at the past by the light of the imagination, creating a fictional situation — there was of course no actual Dante killer in 1865 Boston — to animate the ideas, issues and personalities of the time... There aren't many writers around who can remind you of both James Patterson and Umberto Eco."
-Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

"Young author finds a 'Pearl' in mystery. Boston winters are cruel, and Matthew Pearl captures every icy finger of wind, every sinister shadow and more than a few human-induced chills in 'The Dante Club'... Pearl is a young author worth following. He's created a work that should appeal to history buffs, literary buffs and crime fiction fans alike."
-Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

"A hell of a first novel... The Dante Club delivers in spades."
-David Lazarus, The San Francisco Chronicle

The Dante Club is a thoroughly accomplished first novel. Matthew Pearl does a marvelous job of evoking the period and making it come alive with finely drawn characters and an ingenious story.”
-David Liss, Edgar Award–winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper

“A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history.”
-Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost

“In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl expertly combines rollicking entertainment with serious insights about Civil War–era America. The book is fun, smart, and enviably audacious.”
-Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and The Real McCoy

“This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term ‘thrilling’ genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths.”
-Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost

“The Dante Club is pure pleasure for the reader, magnificently informed without being stuffy, gripping without being merely sensational. I particularly enjoyed the nice, easy swing of its pacing. This book can be savored.”
-Peter Straub, co-author of Black House

“An ambitious and entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr.”
-Publishers Weekly

"Expertly weaving period detail, historical fact, complex character studies, and nail-biting suspense, Pearl has written a unique and utterly absorbing tale."
-Booklist Magazine (starred)

"Matthew Pearl's dazzler of a debut novel, The Dante Club, is just what an historical thriller should be—a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting"
-Bookpage Magazine

"A devil of a time... Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery."
-Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Absorbing and dramatic... Pearl has proven himself a master."
-Library Journal

Bookpage Magazine
Matthew Pearl's dazzler of a debut novel, The Dante Club, is just what an historical thriller should be--a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting that immerses the listener in another time and sensibility. Here, the setting is the post-Civil War Boston of 1865. The characters include some of the great literary Brahmins of the time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell among them, who are hard at work on the first American translation of Dante. The suspense comes quickly when their scholarly efforts are interrupted by string of grizzly murders that exactly duplicate the dire torments described in Dante's "Inferno." Intrigued and horrified, these elite intellectuals put their pens aside to go after the killer themselves. Add Boyd Gaines perfect pitched narration to this mix and you've got a soundly satisfying audiopresentation. Smart, exciting entertainment.
The Los Angeles Times
Pearl, while still in his 20s, has written an erudite and entertaining account of Dante's violent entrance into the American canon. His novel describes how the distinguished founders of a Dante Club at Cambridge in 1865 become embroiled in a gruesome set of murders inspired by the punishments of "The Inferno." Pearl's heroes are charmingly eccentric. James Russell Lowell smokes cigars while bathing and reaches for his rifle at slight provocation. The compulsive but kindhearted narcissist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes as much for profit as for inspiration. The club leader, stoic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, does not sleep at night. In addition to the Pickwick-like central cast, cultural celebrities Louis Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. figure in the highbrow misadventures. — Joseph Luzzi
The New Yorker
The serial murderer who draws gory inspiration from the torments of Dante's Inferno has cropped up in thrillers before -- Michael Dibdin's "A Rich Full Death" and Thomas Harris's "Hannibal" -- but Pearl's ingenious notion is to set his début novel in Boston in 1865, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were translating Dante into English. As they work through the cantos, the Dante-inspired corpses arrive on cue, and the versifiers must turn detective. Pearl, a Harvard graduate and Dante enthusiast, is at his best when discussing "The Divine Comedy" but is less suited to the generic demands of the thriller, which leads to obvious, and gruesome, B-movie plotting. He also has a fine sense of the period, but he overdoes things; the characters cannot walk down the street without tripping over some famous historical personage.
Janet Maslin
In the ingenious new literary mystery "The Dante Club," someone with intimate knowledge of "The Divine Comedy" appears to be staging murders that mirror the punishments of Dante's "Inferno." Considering that the prodigiously clever first-time author, Matthew Pearl, is a Harvard- and Yale-educated Dante scholar who won a 1998 prize from the Dante Society of America, it is fortunate that he was content with simply writing a book... Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition. Among its many sidelights are the attack by Dr. Louis Agassiz of Harvard upon Darwin's theory of evolution; a discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act and its consequences; the resistance faced by Italian immigrants, who number only about 300 in the Boston area in 1865; and the killing of Dr. George Parkman by John W. Webster, a crime that still haunts Holmes. Most vivid is the battle between the Harvard Corporation and the principals' artistic freedom. "I do not understand how you can put your good name, everything you've worked for your whole life, on the line for something like this,"says Manning, who has threatened to shut down Lowell's Dante class. And Lowell replies: "Don't you wish to heaven you could?" Mr. Pearl, with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both.
The New York Times
Esquire Magazine
Chosen as "The Big Important Book of the Month" Audacious and captivating... Who can solve these devilish crimes? Why, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, famous writers and Dante obsessives who are called in as CSIs. Pearl's Dante scholarship is truly admirable, and hats off to anyone who's this passionate about the crazy Florentine -- or, indeed, to anyone who's this passionate about anything... As Holmes says to Lowell, 'I fear I will catch your Dante mania.' Don't be surprised if, after having read THE DANTE CLUB, you find yourself revisiting your old tattered college-issued Inferno. How much, it turns out, you've been missing.
The Wall Street Journal
Many American devotees may not know that they owe their first translation of "The Divine Comedy" to another great poet: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The bard gave the New World not only its first taste of the Italian poet but, with Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, its first Dante Society. This is the setting for Matthew Pearl's ambitious novel, "The Dante Club."....Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike.
Susan Tekulve
In 1865, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began the first full-length American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. He collaborated with the poets James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, historian George Washington Greene and publisher J.T. Fields, forming a literary group called the Dante Club. In this historical thriller, Pearl imagines what could have happened during this critical time in literary history. As the Dante Club fights against the Harvard authorities, who find Dante's journey through the torments of hell too harsh, "too Italian and too Catholic, " their translation project is jeopardized even further by a series of gory murders inspired by Dante's Inferno. This brilliant but bumbling group races to solve the mystery before the police and the public discover the murderer's misguided admiration for Dante. Though these characters are shaped by rich detail, they remain a bit wooden, and their involvement with the police investigation seems contrived. Still, the book provides an imaginative look into the private lives of some of our country's most famous poets and the Boston publishing industry that shaped their careers.
Publishers Weekly
In 1865 Boston, not many people spoke Italian. It was much more popular for people to study Latin and Greek; the classic works in these languages were common reading for students and academics. But the small circle of literati in Pearl's inventive novel is bent on translating and publishing Dante's Divine Comedy so that all Americans may learn of the writer's genius. As this group of scholars, poets, publishers and professors readies the manuscript, much more exciting doings are happening outside their circle. The Boston police are hot on the trail of a series of murders taking place around town. In one, a priest is buried alive, his feet set on fire; in another, a man's body is eaten by maggots. It doesn't take a rocket scientist-only a Dante expert-to realize these murders are based on Dante's Inferno and its account of Hell's punishments. Scholars become snoopers, and the Dante Club is soon on the scene, investigating the crimes and trying to find the killer. A tad unlikely, but it makes for a terrific story. Gaines gives an stirring performance, nimbly portraying some of the "Hah-vad" professors' "Bah-ston" accents and impressively reading the Italian passages from Dante's work. Although it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the various characters-after awhile each stuffy Bostonian begins to sound alike-Gaines nonetheless amuses and, via Pearl's historical references, educates. Simultaneous release with the Random hardcover (Forecasts, Oct. 7, 2002). (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A serial killer is loose in this historical novel set in 1865 Boston. Strangely, the murderer kills his victims using the tortures described in Dante's Inferno. The Dante Club, whose members include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, meet weekly to edit the first English translation of Dante's poem. These literary men soon realize that the murderer is using their translation as a model for his crimes and decide to search for the killer. John Seidman's narration of Pearl's debut novel is clear and easy to understand; recommended for public and academic libraries.--Ilka Gordon, Medical Lib., Fairview General Hosp., Cleveland Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
(Starred Review) Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery.

The year is 1865. The eponymous Club, whose members include Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, meet regularly to plan promoting American interest in Dante's masterpiece (by now Longfellow's translation is well underway). But Harvard's tenacious devotion to its classical curriculum discourages such eclecticism ("Italy is a world of the worst passions and loosest morals"). Moreover, several violent murders clearly inspired by punishments meted out to sinners in Dante's Inferno claim highly visible victims (a Massachusetts Chief Justice, a prominent clergyman, a wealthy art patron). The scholars therefore turn detectives, bumping heads with, among others, Boston's harried police chief, "mulatto" patrolman Nicholas Rey, and "minor Pinkerton detective" Simon Camp. Crucial clues to the killer's identity lurk in information possessed by a "disgraced" professor, entomological research performed by botanist Louis Agassiz, a series of sermons attended by wounded Civil War veterans, and standing evidence (so to speak) of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Author Pearl, a 26-year-old Yale Law School graduate and Dante scholar, offers a wealth of entertaining detail, but his fictional skills need sharpening: there are a few confusing shifts in viewpoint; in at least one scene a character speaks up before we've been told that he's present; and the eventual capture of the villain is inexplicably interrupted by a lengthy omniscient account of his personal history and developingmotivations. Most readers will forgive such lapses, however-thanks to an intricate and clever plot, and the author's distinctive characterizations of the gentle, courtly Longfellow, quick-tempered Lowell, and mercurial, ironical Holmes.

Great fun figuring out whodunit and why: a devil of a time.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812971040
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/10/2004
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
114,152
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt

CANTICLE ONE

I

JOHN KURTZ, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids. On one side, the Irish woman who had discovered the body was blubbering and wailing prayers unfamiliar (because they were Catholic) and unintelligible (because she was blubbering) that prickled the hair in Kurtz's ear; on the other side was her soundless and despairing niece. The parlor had a wide arrangement of chairs and couches, but the women had squeezed in next to the guest as they waited. He had to concentrate on not spilling any of his tea, the black haircloth divan was rattling so hard with their shock.

Kurtz had faced other murders as chief of police. Not enough to make it routine, though—usually one a year, or two; often, Boston would pass through a twelve-month period without a homicide worth noticing. Those few who were murdered were of the low sort, so it had not been a necessary part of Kurtz's position to console. He was a man too impatient with emotion to have excelled at it anyway. Deputy Police Chief Edward Savage, who sometimes wrote poetry, might have done better.

This—this was the only name Chief Kurtz could bear to attach to the horrifying situation that was to change the life of a city—was not only a murder. This was the murder of a Boston Brahmin, a member of the aristocratic, Harvard-schooled, Unitarian-blessed, drawing room caste of New England. And the victim was more than that: He was the highest official of the Massachusetts courts. This had not only killed a man, as sometimes murders do almost mercifully, but had obliterated him entirely.

The woman they were anticipating in the best parlor of Wide Oaks had boarded the first train she could in Providence after receiving the telegram. The train's first-class cars lumbered forward with irresponsible leisure, but now that journey, like everything that had come before, seemed part of an unrecognizable oblivion. She had made a wager with herself, and with God, that if her family minister had not yet arrived at her house by the time she got there, the telegram's message had been mistaken. It didn't quite make sense, this half-articulated wager of hers, but she had to invent something to believe, something to keep from fainting dead away. Ednah Healey, balanced on the threshold of terror and loss, stared at nothing. Entering her parlor, she saw only the absence of her minister and fluttered with unreasoning victory.

Kurtz, a robust man with mustard coloring beneath his bushy mustache, realized he too was trembling. He had rehearsed the exchange on the carriage ride to Wide Oaks. "Madam, how very sorry we are to call you back to this. Understand that Chief Justice Healey..." No, he had meant to preface that. "We thought it best," he continued, "to explain the unfortunate circumstances here, you see, in your own house, where you'd be most comfortable." He thought this idea a generous one.

"You couldn't have found Judge Healey, Chief Kurtz," she said, and ordered him to sit. "I'm sorry you've wasted this call, but there's some simple mistake. The chief justice was—is staying in Beverly for a few quiet days of work while I visited Providence with our two sons. He is not expected back until tomorrow."

Kurtz did not claim responsibility for refuting her. "Your chambermaid," he said, indicating the bigger of the two servants, "found his body, madam. Outside, near the river."

Nell Ranney, the chambermaid, welled with guilt for the discovery. She did not notice that there were a few bloodstained maggot remains in the pouch of her apron.

"It appears to have happened several days ago. Your husband never departed for the country, I'm afraid," Kurtz said, worried he sounded too blunt.

Ednah Healey wept slowly at first, as a woman might for a dead household pet—reflective and governed but without anger. The olive-brown feather protruding from her hat nodded with dignified resistance.

Nell looked at Mrs. Healey longingly, then said with great humanity, "You ought to come back later in the day, Chief Kurtz, if you please."

John Kurtz was grateful for the permission to escape Wide Oaks. He walked with appropriate solemnity toward his new driver, a young and handsome patrolman who was letting down the steps of the police carriage. There was no reason to hurry, not with what must be brewing already over this at the Central Station between the frantic city aldermen and Mayor Lincoln, who already had him by the ears for not raiding enough gambling "hells" and prostitution houses to make the newspapers happy.

A terrible scream cleaved the air before he had walked very far. It belched forth in light echoes from the house's dozen chimneys. Kurtz turned and watched with foolish detachment as Ednah Healey, feather hat flying away and hair unloosed in wild peaks, ran onto the front steps and launched a streaking white blur straight for his head.

Kurtz would later remember blinking—it seemed all he could do to prevent catastrophe, to blink. He bowed to his helplessness: The murder of Artemus Prescott Healey had finished him already. It was not the death itself. Death was as common a visitor in 1865 Boston as ever: infant sicknesses, consumption and unnamed and unforgiving fevers, uncontainable fires, stampeding riots, young women perishing in childbirth in such great number it seemed they had never been meant for this world in the first place, and—until just six months ago—war, which had reduced thousands upon thousands of Boston boys to names written on black-bordered notices and sent to their families. But the meticulous and nonsensical—the elaborate and meaningless—destruction of a single human being at the hands of an unknown...

Kurtz was yanked down hard by his coat and tumbled into the soft, sun-drenched lawn. The vase thrown by Mrs. Healey shattered into a thousand blue-and-ivory shards against the paunch of an oak (one of the trees said to have given the estate its name). Perhaps, Kurtz thought, he should have sent Deputy Chief Savage to handle this after all.

Patrolman Nicholas Rey, Kurtz's driver, released his arm and lifted him to his feet. The horses snorted and reared at the end of the carriageway.

"He did all he knew how! We all did! We didn't deserve this, whatever they say to you, Chief! We didn't deserve any of this! I'm all alone now!" Ednah Healey raised her clenched hands, and then said something that startled Kurtz. "I know who, Chief Kurtz! I know who's done this! I know!"

Nell Ranney threw her thick arms around the screaming woman and shushed and caressed, cradling her as she would have cradled one of the Healey children so many years before. Ednah Healey clawed and pulled and spat in return, causing the comely junior police officer, Patrolman Rey, to intervene.

But the new widow's rage expired, folding itself into the maid's wide black blouse, where there was nothing else but the abundant bosom.

The old mansion had never sounded so empty.

Ednah Healey had departed on one of her frequent visits to the home of her family, the industrious Sullivans, in Providence, her husband remaining behind to work on a property dispute between Boston's two largest banking concerns. The judge bid his family good-bye in his usual mumbling and affectionate manner, and was generous enough to dismiss the help once Mrs. Healey was out of sight. Though the wife wouldn't do without servants, he enjoyed small moments of autonomy. Besides, he liked a drop of sherry on occasion, and the help was sure to report any temperance violations to their mistress, for they liked him but feared her deep within their bones.

He would start off the following day for a weekend of tranquil study in Beverly. The next proceeding that required Healey's presence would not be heard until Wednesday, when he would railroad back into the city, back to the courthouse.

Judge Healey didn't notice one way or another, but Nell Ranney, a maid for twenty years, since being driven out by famine and disease in her native Ireland, knew that a tidy environment was essential for a man of importance like the chief justice. So Nell came in on Monday, which was when she found the first splattering of dried red near the supply closet and another streaking near the foot of the stairs. She guessed that some wounded animal had found its way into the house and must have found the same way out.

Then she saw a fly on the parlor drapes. She shooed it out the open window with a high-pitched clicking of her tongue, fortified by the brandishing of her feather duster. But it reappeared while she was polishing the long mahogany dining table. She thought the new colored kitchen girls must have negligently left some crumbs. Contraband—which is how she still thought of the freedwomen and always would—did not care of actual cleanliness, only its appearance.

The insect, it seemed to Nell, gurgled loud as a train's engine. She killed the fly with a rolled up North American Review. The flattened specimen was about twice the size of a housefly and had three even black stripes across its bluish green trunk. And what a phizz! thought Nell Ranney. The head of the creature was something Judge Healey would murmur over admiringly before tossing the fly to the wastebasket. The bulging eyes, of a vibrant orange color, took up nearly half its torso. There was a strange tint of orange glowing out, or red. Something between the two, something yellow and black, too. Copper: the swirl of fire.

She returned to the house the next morning to clean the upstairs. Just as she crossed through the door, another fly sailed like an arrow past the tip of her nose. Outraged, she secured another of the judge's heavy magazines and stalked the fly up the main staircase. Nell always used the servants' stairs, even when alone in the house. But this situation called for rearranging priorities. She removed her shoes and her wide feet fell lightly over the warm, carpeted steps, following the fly into the Healeys' bedchamber.

The fire-eyes stared out jarringly; the body curled back like a horse ready to gallop, and the face of the insect looked for that moment like the face of a man. This was the last moment for many years, listening to the monotonous buzz, that Nell Ranney would know some measure of peace.

She rumbled forward and smashed the Review against the window and the fly. But she had faltered over something during her attack, and now looked down at the obstacle, twisted on her bare foot. She picked up the tangled mass, a full set of human teeth belonging to the upper chamber of a mouth.

She released it at once but stood attentively, as though it might censure her for the incivility.

They were false teeth, crafted with an artist's care by a prominent New York dentist to fulfill Judge Healey's desire for a smarter appearance on the bench. He was so proud of them—told their provenance to anyone who would listen, not understanding that the vanity leading to such appendages should prevent any discussion of them. They were a bit too bright and new, like staring right into the summer sun between a man's lips.

From the corner of her eye, Nell noticed a thick pool of blood that had curdled and caked on the carpet. And near that, a small pile of suit clothes folded neatly. These clothes were as familiar as Nell Ranney's own white apron, black blouse, and billowing black skirt. She had done much needlework on his pockets and sleeves; the judge never ordered new suits from Mr. Randridge, the exceptional School Street tailor, except when absolutely essential.

Returning downstairs to put on her shoes, the chambermaid only now noticed the splashes of blood on the banister and camouflaged by the plush red carpet that covered the stairs. Out the parlor's large oval window, beyond the immaculate garden, where the yard sloped into meadows, woods, dry fields, and, eventually, the Charles River, she saw a swarm of blowflies. Nell went outdoors to inspect.

The flies were collected over a pile of rubbish. The tremendous scent caused her eyes to tear as she approached. She secured a wheelbarrow and, as she did, recalled the calf the Healeys had permitted the stableboy to raise on the grounds. But that had been years ago. Both the stableboy and the calf had outgrown Wide Oaks and left it to its eternal sameness.

The flies were of that new fire-eyed variety. There were yellow hornets, too, which had taken some morbid interest in whatever putrid flesh was underneath. But more numerous than the flying creatures were the masses of bristling white pellets crackling with movement—sharp-backed worms, wriggling tightly over something, no, not just wriggling, popping, burrowing, sinking, eating into each other, into the...but what was supporting this horrendous mountain, alive with white slime? One end of the heap seemed like a thorny bush of chestnut and ivory strands of...

Above the heap stood a short wooden staff with a ragged flag, white on both sides; it was flapping with the undecided breeze.

She could not help knowing the truth about what lay in that heap, but in her fear she prayed she'd find the stableboy's calf. Her eyes could not resist making out the nakedness, the wide, slightly hunched back sloping into the crack of the enormous, snowy buttocks, brimming over with the crawling, pallid, bean-shaped maggots above the disproportionately short legs that were kicked out in opposite directions. A solid block of flies, hundreds of them, circled protectively. The back of the head was completely swathed in white worms, which must have numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds.

Nell kicked away the wasps' nest and stuffed the judge into the wheelbarrow. She half wheeled and half dragged his naked body through the meadows, over the garden, through the halls, and into his study. Throwing the body on a mound of legal papers, Nell pulled Judge Healey's head into her lap. Handfuls of maggots rained down from his nose and ears and slack mouth. She began tearing out the luminescent maggots from the back of his head. The wormy pellets were moist and hot. She also grabbed some of the fire-eyed flies that had trailed her inside, smashing them with the palm of her hand, pulling them apart by the wings, flinging them, one after another, across the room in empty vengeance. What was heard and seen next made her produce a roar loud enough to ring straight through New England.

Two grooms from the stable next door found Nell crawling away from the study on her hands and knees, crying insensibly.

"But what is it, Nellie, what is it? By Jesus, you ain't hurt now?"

It was later, when Nell Ranney told Ednah Healey that Judge Healey had groaned before dying in her arms, that the widow ran out and threw a vase at the chief of police. That her husband might have been conscious for those four days, even remotely aware, was too much to ask her to permit.

Mrs. Healey's professed knowledge of her husband's killer turned out to be rather imprecise. "It was Boston that killed him," she revealed later that day to Chief Kurtz, after she had stopped shaking. "This entire hideous city. It ate him alive."

She insisted Kurtz bring her to the body. It had taken the coroner's deputies three hours to slice out the quarter-inch spiraled maggots from their places inside the corpse; the tiny horny mouths had to be pried off. The pockets of devoured flesh left in their wake spanned all open areas; the terrible swelling at the back of the head still seemed to pulse with maggots even after their removal. The nostrils were now barely divided and the armpits eaten away. With the false teeth gone the face sagged low and loose like a dead accordion. Most humiliating, most pitiable, was not the broken condition, not even the fact that the body had been so maggot-ridden and layered in flies and wasps, but the simple fact of the nakedness. Sometimes a corpse, it is said, looks for all the world like a forked radish with a head fantastically carved upon it. Judge Healey had one of those bodies never meant to be seen naked by anyone except his wife.

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What People are saying about this

Iain Pears
A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history.
— author of An Instance of the Fingerpost
Peter Straub
The Dante Club is pure pleasure for the reader, magnificently informed without being stuffy, gripping without being merely sensational. I particularly enjoyed the nice, easy swing of its pacing. This book can be savored.
— co-author of Black House
Gregory Maguire
This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term 'thrilling' genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths.
— author of Wicked and Lost
Darin Strauss
In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl expertly combines rollicking entertainment with serious insights about Civil War-era America. The book is fun, smart, and enviably audacious.
— author of Chang & Eng and The Real McCoy
From the Publisher
"Matthew Pearl is the new shining star of literary fiction — a heady, inventive, and immensely gifted author. With intricate plots, classical themes, and erudite characters…what’s not to love?"
-Dan Brown

"Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition... with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both." -Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Audacious and captivating."
-Adrienne Miller, Esquire

"Mr. Pearl's triumph is mixing these two cultures: wealthy, cultivated men of letters faced with the mysterious and seedy streets of a 19th-century Boston... creating not just a page-turner but a beguiling look at the U.S. in an era when elites shaped the course of learning and publishing. With this story of the Dante Club's own descent into hell, Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike." -Kimberley Strassel, The Wall Street Journal
"Pearl, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a Dante scholar, ably meshes the literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures... A divine mystery."
-Julie K. L. Dam, People Magazine (Page Turner of the Week)

"Just about anyone who admires smart historical fiction will get a literary jolt out of Matthew Pearl’s gory first novel... His Civil War memory fragments alone add up to one of the most unforgettable accounts of that chapter of American history yet written." -Celia McGee, The New York Daily News
"How the club and the police compete and then converge is the mystery and the thrill in a preternaturally accomplished book as wise as it is entertaining. 'The Dante Club' is a carefully plotted, imaginatively shaped, and stylistically credible whodunit of unusual class and intellect... The writing is passionate, the narrative driven."
-Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe

"Pearl has achieved that intoxicating blend of reality and imagination that Doctorow gave us 25 years ago with Ragtime. Here's hoping Pearl decides to spend his career writing novels and letting that Yale law degree go to waste. The world has enough lawyers. Great novelists are in short supply."
-William Mckeen, The Orlando Sentinel

"Pearl masterfully synthesizes countless aspects of mid-19th-century life into a riveting mystery that creeps through all corners of crippled postwar Boston. To steal a revelation from the book: Lucifer did not create hell; it was Dante. In The Dante Club, Pearl adds one more diabolical ring."
-Christopher Bollen, Time Out (New York)

"This novel is as erudite as it is bloody. It swings from an account of exotic maggots eating a man alive to a discussion of the finer points of Dante's artistic and political vision. The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak."
-Chris Kidler, The Baltimore Sun

"'The Dante Club' is a richly detailed microcosm set generously before us. Within it, wit, erudition and a healthy respect for good old fashioned hugger-mugger conspire to produce one of this year's most agreeable entertainments."
-Bruce Allen, Raleigh News & Observer

"Pearl does what a good historical novelist has to do: Look at the past by the light of the imagination, creating a fictional situation — there was of course no actual Dante killer in 1865 Boston — to animate the ideas, issues and personalities of the time... There aren't many writers around who can remind you of both James Patterson and Umberto Eco."
-Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

"Young author finds a 'Pearl' in mystery. Boston winters are cruel, and Matthew Pearl captures every icy finger of wind, every sinister shadow and more than a few human-induced chills in 'The Dante Club'... Pearl is a young author worth following. He's created a work that should appeal to history buffs, literary buffs and crime fiction fans alike."
-Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

"A hell of a first novel... The Dante Club delivers in spades."
-David Lazarus, The San Francisco Chronicle

The Dante Club is a thoroughly accomplished first novel. Matthew Pearl does a marvelous job of evoking the period and making it come alive with finely drawn characters and an ingenious story.”
-David Liss, Edgar Award–winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper

“A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history.”
-Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost

“In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl expertly combines rollicking entertainment with serious insights about Civil War–era America. The book is fun, smart, and enviably audacious.”
-Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and The Real McCoy

“This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term ‘thrilling’ genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths.”
-Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost

“The Dante Club is pure pleasure for the reader, magnificently informed without being stuffy, gripping without being merely sensational. I particularly enjoyed the nice, easy swing of its pacing. This book can be savored.”
-Peter Straub, co-author of Black House

“An ambitious and entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr.”
-Publishers Weekly

"Expertly weaving period detail, historical fact, complex character studies, and nail-biting suspense, Pearl has written a unique and utterly absorbing tale."
-Booklist Magazine (starred)

"Matthew Pearl's dazzler of a debut novel, The Dante Club, is just what an historical thriller should be—a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting"
-Bookpage Magazine

"A devil of a time... Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery."
-Kirkus Reviews

"Absorbing and dramatic... Pearl has proven himself a master."
-Library Journal

David Liss
The Dante Club is a thoroughly accomplished first novel. Matthew Pearl does a marvelous job of evoking the period and making it come alive with finely drawn characters and an ingenious story.
— Edgar Award-winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper

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