The Dante Club

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Overview

"In 1865 Boston, the literary geniuses of the Dante Club - poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J. T. Fields - are finishing America's first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard College are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of foreign superstitions into American minds will prove as corrupting as the immigrants
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Overview

"In 1865 Boston, the literary geniuses of the Dante Club - poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J. T. Fields - are finishing America's first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard College are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of foreign superstitions into American minds will prove as corrupting as the immigrants arriving at Boston Harbor." "The members of the Dante Club fight to keep a sacred literary cause alive, but their plans fall apart when a series of murders erupts through Boston and Cambridge. Only this small group of scholars realizes that the gruesome killings are modeled on the descriptions of Hell's punishments from Dante's Inferno. With the lives of the Boston elite and Dante's literary future in America at stake, the Dante Club members must find the killer before the authorities discover their secret." Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and an outcast police officer named Nicholas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, must place their careers on the line to end the terror. Together, they discover that the source of the murders lies closer to home than they ever could have imagined.
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Editorial Reviews

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.

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812971040
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 527,604
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew Pearl
Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American Literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School, where he wrote the first draft of The Dante Club. In 1998, he won the prestigious Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America for his scholarly work. He is also the editor of the new Modern Library edition of Dante's Inferno, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Dante Club is his first novel.

Biography

Matthew Pearl's novels achieve the seemingly unachievable. They manage to be both informative and entertaining, utilizing historically accurate details about some very famous literary figures to fashion fictional thrillers that rival the works of Pearl's idols. While Pearl's work is indeed ambitious, he has the credentials to tackle such challenging projects that place immortals like Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Alan Poe in the middle of mysteries of his own creation. In 1997, Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature. He went on to teach literature and creative writing at both Harvard and Emerson College. Pearl's impressive background in literature and research provided him with the necessary tools for making history come alive in a most unique way. He is also bolstered by a genuine fascination with the theme of literary stardom. "I am very interested by literary celebrity, and both Dante and Poe experienced it in some degree," Pearl explained to litkicks.com. "Or, in Poe's case, he aimed for literary celebrity and never quite achieved it…Longfellow was more genuinely a celebrity. People would stop him in the streets, particularly in his later years. Imagine that today, a poet stopped in the streets! It was also common for writers like Longfellow to have their autographs cut out of letters and sold, or even their signatures forged and sold."

Pearl published his debut novel in 2003. The Dante Club is a small group of Harvard professors and poets (including Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes) who must track down a killer before he derails their efforts to complete the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. The novel became an international sensation. Pearl's attention to historical facts, his imagination, his vivid descriptions and fine characterizations awed critics and delighted readers. Esquire magazine chose The Dante Club as its "Big Important Book of the Month." Since its 2003 publication, it has become an international bestseller, translated into 30 languages.

Pearl followed The Dante Club with another cagey combination of historical fact and mysterious fiction. The Poe Shadow takes place during the aftermath of the death of Edgar Alan Poe. In a labyrinthine plot that would surely have made the master of the macabre proud, an attorney named Quentin Hobson Clark seeks to uncover the exact details that lead up to the peculiar death of his favorite writer. The Poe Shadow was another major feat from Matthew Pearl. If anything, it is even richer and more intriguing than its predecessor. Poe's status as a great purveyor of mystery and the mystery which Pearl conjures within his plot makes for a most provocative mixture. Critics from all corners of the globe agreed. From Entertainment Weekly to The Spectator to The Independent, The Globe and Mail, Booklist, Bookpage, and countless others, The Poe Shadow was hailed as another major achievement for Matthew Pearl. The novel has also become yet another international bestseller.

So, is Matthew Pearl heading for the kind of literary celebrity that so fascinates him? Well, Details magazine named the writer as one of its "Next Big Things," and Dan "The Da Vinci Code" Brown called him "the new shining star of literary fiction." Who knows? Maybe one day an aspiring young writer may see fit to place Matthew Pearl in the center of some fictional puzzler.

Good To Know

Pearl was placed on the 2003 edition of Boston Magazine's annual "Hot List."

His fascination with Edgar Alan Poe does not end with Poe's presence in The Poe Shadow. Pearl also edited a 2006 collection of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin mysteries titled Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales.

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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 thebest 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.

Copyright© 2003 by Matthew Pearl
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First Chapter

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 inthe 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.

Copyright 2003 by Matthew Pearl
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Matthew Pearl, author of THE DANTE CLUB

Q: Was there a historical Dante Club?
MP: Yes, and it was indeed centered around Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s most revered poet of the 19th century. Longfellow had begun to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy as a way of coping with his wife’s tragic death. His friends and colleagues, many of whom Longfellow had inspired to read Dante, rallied around him. They called themselves the “Dante Club” and included poet and Harvard professor James Russell Lowell, author and editor Charles Eliot Norton, poet and publisher J. T. Fields, poet and Harvard medical professor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, author and editor William Dean Howells, and Revolutionary War historian George Washington Greene. I couldn’t quite fit them all into the novel in a satisfactory way, however, and so Norton and Howells make only brief appearances. The members of the club would meet every Wednesday night at Longfellow’s house in Cambridge (which we can still visit!) to look over and critique Longfellow’s latest translations, and then adjourn for supper, often remaining until one or two in the morning. This somewhat informal group eventually inspired the formation of the Dante Society of America in 1881.
Q: What kind of research did you do to reconstruct the world of 1865 Boston?
MP: The central historical figures in the novel were writers — so lucky for me (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) they wrote down everything. Letters, journals, notes, memoirs, I had endless entrances into their lives. I always find their comments about one another most intriguing andrevealing, particularly when they’re critical about their friends. As for the rest of the world of 1865, everything helps. Historical maps, contemporary accounts of daily life, newspaper articles. When you’re writing historical fiction, you want to know what your characters would have had for breakfast, what kind of hats they would wear, how they might greet each other if meeting on the street.
Q: The novel is historical fiction. The historical circumstances of 1865 Boston and post-Civil War literary circles are interspersed throughout. What are the fictional elements of the novel, and did it ever seem as though they were intruding on the historical elements?
MP: As a writer of historical fiction, I believe you don’t want to fictionalize gratuitously, you want the fictional aspects to prod and pressure the history into new and exciting reactions. In The Dante Club, a series of murders, modeled after the punishments in Dante’s Inferno, disrupt life in Boston and Cambridge. This outbreak is the primary fiction of the novel, in addition, obviously, to the challenge it presents to the members of the Dante Club to react. However, I see this as very organic to the material. Dante, after all, designed his story as one in which a poet (that is, Dante himself), not a soldier or warrior, must descend into the bleak and horrifying terrain of Hell as the first step toward growth and redemption. I wanted to arrange a parallel descent for the Dante Club, to force them to confront the abyss present in their own day and society. Which really brings the fiction back to history: directly after the Civil War, crime and murder rapidly increased in American cities. So while the Dante murders are fictional, they reflect a very real, new sense of violence that had to be confronted at all levels of American culture.
Another example of fiction in the novel is the character of Nicholas Rey, the first African-American policeman in Boston. Although he is fictional, his situation comes from my research into the historical circumstances of early non-white police in the 19th century. I make a distinction between “accurate” and “authentic” when writing. Even when I’m not accurate, that is factual, I always try to be authentic.
Q: One review said the novel’s murders are gruesome enough to make Stephen King flinch. Is that true?
MP: I don’t think they’re quite that bloody! Part of what’s gripping about violence in narrative is that it often harbors secrets. Indeed, Dante’s Inferno is brimming with secret lives (and deaths) of its characters. The Dante murders jolt the Dante Club out of their steady and safe literary careers. As James Russell Lowell remarks in the novel, while they were translating Dante into ink, someone else translates Dante into blood. The violence is a signal of the power of literature — of the way in which literature can escape our control. Personally, I’m not a violent person at all. I’m a vegetarian! But if you see Stephen King, please give him a copy of the book and ask him what he thinks.
Q: Does a reader have to be familiar with Dante to enjoy The Dante Club?
Absolutely not! There are no prerequisites for the novel. I worked very hard with the goal of creating an engrossing story, whether or not you’ve ever read Dante or ever will. That said, I’m always excited to hear that the novel does end up making some readers want to read (or reread) Dante, or to rediscover Longfellow and his poetic peers of the 19th century. The characters in the novel are driven by a passion in literature, and so if the novel itself helps foster that passion in someone else, that’s an added bonus.
Q: You wrote the first draft of the novel while at Yale Law School, and then worked full time on the novel after receiving your law degree in 2000. Do you plan on practicing law?
MP: I was fortunate that Yale has a very open and creative law school. I took many courses outside the law school and every semester the students had a literature reading group. I was asked to lead one on “Dante and the Concept of Justice” and it was around that time that I began writing the novel. Being a law student meant constantly thinking about justice and punishment, in relation to the legal system and outside of it. This intersected with my literary interests in Dante, and I think both threads can be seen in The Dante Club. Although I don’t plan to practice law, I don’t feel I’ve left it completely behind. Recently, I wrote an article for Legal Affairs magazine on “Dante and the Death Penalty,” discussing how Dante’s use of justice sheds light on our debates about capital punishment.
Q: Although the events take place in 1865, the issues within the book feel very topical. Do you see a relation between the story of The Dante Club and any current trends or events?
MP: Definitely. Whether it’s the Columbine massacre or the assassination of John Lennon, we’re constantly asking ourselves whether art (literature, music, movies) can influence people to commit violence. And if so, then what? Do we prohibit that work of art? That’s a question the Dante Club must ask themselves. We have to ask ourselves how our communities can become healthier readers and audience members.
Q: Alexa.com recently listed The Dante Club as the number one bestselling book for reading groups. Is there something specific about the novel that would appeal to book clubs?
MP: I like to think of the novel as, in a way, being about a book club. The Dante Club was one of America’s most important book clubs, as their Wednesday night meetings ultimately led to our country’s first exposure to Dante’s poetry on a wide scale. There’s a remarkable power about reading together, reading collectively, that’s brought out by reading groups.
Q: What has been surprising about your experience of having the book published?
MP: Well, I’ve been contacted by some descendents of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, two of the central figures who appear in the novel, expressing their delight at the novel and thanking me for bringing their ancestors to life. I lived with those characters for so long as part of my life it’s strange to actually hear from their families!
Q: With the release of The Dante Club, you have also helped reissue a new edition of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno from Modern Library, for which you wrote a preface. How does Longfellow’s translation hold up these days?
MP: Longfellow’s translation is one of the most important, as it was the first translation of the Divine Comedy into English by an American. Since Longfellow was so famous, readers paid attention. The translation managed to introduce Dante to the country for the first time when it was published in 1867. Ironically, it did such a good job of inserting Dante into our culture, many translations followed and pushed Longfellow’s into obscurity. In fact, Longfellow’s translation had been out of print for over forty years until Modern Library reissued it alongside The Dante Club. Longfellow’s version is still one of the most accurate and faithful to Dante’s text. Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill said he thought Longfellow’s was the best translation of Dante into English ever produced. I think it’s time to rediscover this remarkable product of America’s literary explorers!
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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss how the various characters benefit intellectually and professionally from their association with the “Dante Club” reading and translation group. How is the group similar to book clubs now popular throughout the United States? How does it differ?

2. (Follow-up) What’s the secret of the power of collective reading? Compare the dynamic of the Dante Club to your own book club or reading group.

3. The death of Fanny Longfellow leads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to take “refuge” in his translation of Dante. Discuss why Dante in particular seems to help him through his dark period. How is his sanctuary affected by the outbreak of violence from that same work of literature?

4. (Follow-up) Are there ways in which literature has provided a refuge in your own lives at difficult or confusing times?

5. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante’s poetic idol Virgil leads him through the dangerous passages of the afterlife. In what ways do the characters of THE DANTE CLUB guide one other? Who would you say is the real leader?

6. How does the backdrop of the American Civil War influence the events of the novel?

7. Did you guess who the murderer was before it was revealed?

8. (Follow-up) Come on, did you really?

9. (Follow-up 2) What are the ways in which the author “misdirected” the reader from the murderer? Or, if you had correct suspicions, what tipped you off? In what ways were the murderer’s motives surprising? What do they reveal about the exploration of different types of “reading” that runs throughout the novel?

10. Discuss some of the instances in modern culture in which an artistic work — music, film or literature — seemed to have some impact on inspiring a crime. Some examples: Mark David Chapman carrying “The Catcher in the Rye” when he shot John Lennon; the Columbine killers supposedly drawing inspiration from Marilyn Manson songs and the video game “Doom”; several instances of people imitating “Natural Born Killers” in robberies and shootings. In that last instance, John Grisham led a campaign to prove Oliver Stone held responsibility after a friend of Grisham’s was killed. Is the work of art ever to blame? Do the murders in THE DANTE CLUB stem from the brutality of INFERNO?

11. (Follow-up) Should the Dante Club members have revealed the source of violence to the public? What was at stake besides their reputations?

12. Discuss Patrolman Nicholas Rey's role in the challenges facing the Dante Club, with consideration for Rey's status as a type of "exile" in Boston, and how this fits into the larger story.

13. Discuss the character of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Why does he emerge as the character in the novel with the heaviest burden? What elements of his personal background make the events of the story so disruptive and frightening to Holmes?

14. (Follow-up) Discuss Dr. Holmes’s relationship with his son, Wendell Junior. How does it compare or differ from James Russell Lowell’s relationship with his daughter, Mabel Lowell?
15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the “gallery” of THE DANTE CLUB website (www.thedanteclub.com). Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?

15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the “gallery” of THE DANTE CLUB website (www.thedanteclub.com). Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?

From the Hardcover edition.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 141 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A solid historical mystery

    "John Kurtz, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids." This is the first sentence of this book and it gives us a glimpse into the style of Matthew Pearl's writing. It's clever and witty but not simplistic and at a time when majority of books are written in such a conversational language it's a pleasant change of pace. It also fits the period and serves to create the atmosphere of the formality common in the higher levels of the 19th century society even in familiar company. And what a company it is! Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell were the rock stars of their time and yet Pearl paints such intimate and vivid portraits of them that by the time I turned the last page I felt like I knew them and their doting families. Of course this wasn't accidental - the author perused the poets' personal archives as part of his research for the novel. It still is delightful to see historical figures come to life the way they do here.
    With amateurs acting as investigators it would be easy to categorize the book as a cozy mystery but I would say it falls somewhere between that and a hold-on-to-your-seat thriller, thanks to the fast pace and the gruesomeness of the murders, which are described in rather graphic detail. Of course this is 19th century poets being detectives so they were more horrified than majority of us readers would be, what with TV being what it is nowadays.
    I appreciated that Mr. Pearl included some information on the plot and characters of Inferno as part of the story - I haven't read Dante yet and this saved me from having to put down the book to look things up online or wonder whether I've possibly missed something. It may seem a bit odd that Longfellow would need to explain what happened in the poem and why to his colleagues, all Dante efficionados, but it kept me reading so I'm not complaining.
    What also kept me reading is the elusiveness of the killer's identity. I like to guess who the culprit is as more clues are revealed and here there were plenty of candidates yet the real murder managed to hide in plain sight until the very end. Bonus points to Mr. Pearl for keeping up the suspense.
    This books is not just about Dante and murder though, it is also about the effects of war. The events take place after the Civil War and the effect it has on the American people as a whole and the separate individuals is very similar to what is happening in our country now with the veterans of the war in the Middle East coming home scarred for life, them and their families dealing with the consequences of their experiences every day. The gravity of this subject creates a stark contrast with the rest of the story. Granted, there are the horrors of the murders but the fact that it goes much deeper than the effects of literature on an unstable mind I think is as much a startling revelation for Holmes and the rest as it was for me, the reader. It helps demonstrate just how little their daily lives as litterateurs prepared them for the realities life outside of their gloved circle, the realities of hunting a killer.
    I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction who appreciate a suspenseful mystery, intelligent storytelling, compelling characters and a villain you can't believe you missed.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2008

    excellent

    the beginning is a little slow and difficult to get into, but continuing on is a thrill. the story picks up quite nicely and takes some exciting, unexpected turns. I for one could not put the book down!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2008

    Slow to Start but A Great Finish

    I wanted the book to better detail the Dante parts of the crime, but after a slow start, it got much better. The ending was great and it was at the Third Canticle where I just couldn't put the book down.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2009

    One of the worst books I've ever read...

    ...and I've read a lot of books. I truly despised the book. I, too, picked it up because of the Dan Brown recommendation, since I was looking for some historical fiction similar to the Da Vinci Code. However, this is as about as far from the Da Vinci Code that one can get. It is dull and pretentious. And the writing is truly terrible. One Good writing should go unnoticed, but I stopped reading mid-sentence many times to gawk at Pearl's style. It is as if the writer is trying to use as many five-dollar words as possible, just to prove he can. The plot is slow and unengaging. Just thinking of this book makes me shudder. I think I'll wait for Dan Brown's Solomon Key to come out instead of attempting to scout out any more good historical fiction.

    5 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2008

    Too slow...

    I've tried 2x now to get into this book and I just can't seem to stick with it. It's just soooo slow in the beginning and hard to get into the plot. I might give it another try later as it sounds like it's pretty good once you get into it but jeez it's tough to get there!

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2007

    mind boggling

    This was an amazing edge of your seat thriller. The beginning is a bit slow and confusing, but it picks up with great speed! Pearl is brilliant. If you loved The DaVinci Code, you will most definitely fall in love with The Dante Club.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2009

    Pearl brings Dante and Longfellow back to life

    When I originialy bought this book I thought it was going to be a standard mystery book that takes place in the 1800s. It wasn't what I was expecting, but I was greatly satisfied with it. As someone who had a vague idea of Dante and his Inferno, I was still able to follow and enjoy this book. If fact, I now want to read Longfellow's translation of Dante. I can definitely see this as a great book for Book Clubs, although, it is a great book to read individually as well.
    I even enjoyed the introduction, it makes for a great mystery starter.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Good Book

    I liked the book and found its plot engaging and characters believable. It starts a bit slowly but eventually moves along to a thrilling conclusion. This book is an entertaining and intelligent narrative that is a must read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A stunning first novel from a writer destined to become a household name

    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.<BR/><BR/>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 "Devine 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. The murders are 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.<BR/><BR/>Despite the graphic butchery, this is a book that must not be rushed, but savored for the intricacy of the plot and the intensity of the prose. It is the rare book that draws the reader to revisit the poetry of Longfellow, US history in the wake of the Civil War, and the mystery of Dante in 19th century America. A stunning first novel from a writer destined to become a household name

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2008

    What a great way to revisit Dante's Masterpiece!

    I read Dante's Inferno in college with help of a T.A. and found it fascinating! When I tried to read it on my own I was frustrated so when I found The Dante Club, I was thrilled to find a great way to get back into the book with a wonderfully sculpted suspense story included! I will definitely read this book several times over!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2007

    Intriguing

    If you want to read about an early form of censorship, dive into the wonderfully vivd language which is The Dante Club. Matthew Pearl has woven several plots together which seemingly unveil the political climate of the time. So get ready for a wonderfully descriptive read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2006

    Never really picked up...

    This book sounded promising, as I am a lover of historical fiction. And fiction with lots of detail and descriptions and imagery doesn't bore me, so I cannot attribute my disappointment in this novel to the fact that the detail was almost overwhelming. I feel like this book had so much potential to be great, but that it was simply lacking something to make it shine. Perhaps there wasn't a main focus to the story - a lot of subplots abounded. And honestly, I couldn't finish the last 30 pages of the book for a good two months. I finally forced myself to sit down and read the last couple chapters, and I was shocked at how horribly everything was wrapped up. 300+ pages of build up, to wrap up the story (and in my opinion, incompletely) in one chapter? I thought, perhaps, the ending would tie everything together nicely, but instead it just left more loose ends. One of my least favorite things when reading a story is coming to the end and feeling dissatisfied with the result, unless the book is part of a series to be continued. And obviously this story is not TBA, so the many questions I was left with did not help form a positive opinion. The negatives just completely outweighed the positives here.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2006

    I was captivated from start to finish.

    I could not stop reading. Every word, every page transported me back to the time and place. It was one of the most pleasurable reads I've ever had, and I'm nearly sixty! It also got me interested in Longfellow, whose biography I'm now reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2006

    Fabulous!

    This was truly an entertaining read! I haven't picked up a work of fiction in over 5 years, so I was very paticular about what I purchased. As a student of American history and a fan of Dante since childhood, this seemed like a good choice. Although the first few pages begin with an graphic description of a murder, the story (as most mysteries tend to do) draws the reader in and one tends to overlook the gory aspects. I finished the novel in less than a week, craving more. Pearl succeeds in keeping you on the edge of your seat and just when you think you have figured it out or you can't wait to read more, he cuts from the seen. His style keeps the pages turning and the reader entertained. I'm definitely looking forward to more from Pearl and to dusting off my copy of The Divine Comedy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2005

    Hard to finish

    Our book club agreed that this book was long, boring, disgusting in parts, and a very disappointing read. The author seems more interested in displaying his technical skills than in keeping the reader interested. Several characters and scenes lead you to believe that more development will come later -- only to disappoint later on when they don't. Towards the end the book becomes more fast-paced and easier to finish, but good luck making it past the first 150 pages.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2003

    Nice Concept, but He Can't Write!

    This book has a flashy concept but the execution is very weak and uninvolving. All the characters sound alike as they engage in pompous speechifying with each other. The narrative voice is stuffy and off-putting. The plotting and the numerous coincidences are amateurish. Much of the 'action' involves the 3 or 4 lead characters meeting and greeting each other again and again in different locales (kind of like a bad movie where you get to see the characters getting in and out of cars again and again and driving off somewhere). The villians are cartoonish book burners and the author takes you through over 300 pages of deadly dull prose and at the end simply tells you who the murderer is and attempts a very unconvincing explanation of his motivation--since none of this is developed organically in the preceding story line. This is a very overhyped book by a young lawyer who should stick to writing legal briefs. The whole thing reeks of being a huge research project that a non-writer has tried to turn into a novel. Skip it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The amazing detail sucked me in from page one. Absolutely loved

    The amazing detail sucked me in from page one. Absolutely loved this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2013

    Slow but good

    It was strange reading a book where the detectives are all poets and not cops or other action type heroes. As other readers mentioned, it was a bit slow moving and there were lots of red herons thrown in the way of the solution. But it was an enjoyable read.

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  • Posted July 7, 2012

    CSI in the 19th Century

    Brilliant from cover to cover.

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  • Posted March 23, 2012

    This is a wonderful book! Travelling the streets in Boston and C

    This is a wonderful book! Travelling the streets in Boston and Cambridge in 1865 was very interesting. But in the company of Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, Greene and Fields? WOW! I've picked up THE POE SHADOW and can't wait to dive in. Next up THE LAST DICKENS and THE TECHNOLOGISTS. Matthew Pearl is now one of my favorite young writers and I look forward to his future works in fiction and history.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 141 Customer Reviews

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