“With intricate plots, classical themes, and erudite characters . . . what’s not to love?”—Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Origin
Boston, 1865. 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. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard College are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing the infiltration of foreign superstitions to be as corrupting as the immigrants arriving at Boston Harbor.
But as the members of the Dante Club fight to keep a sacred literary cause alive, 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 the New World at stake, the members of the Dante Club must find the killer before the authorities discover their secret.
Praise for The Dante Club
“Ingenious . . . [Matthew Pearl] keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“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.”—The Wall Street Journal
“[Pearl] ably meshes the . . . literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures. . . . A divine mystery.”—People (Page-turner of the Week)
“An erudite and entertaining account of Dante’s violent entrance into the American canon.”—Los Angeles Times
“A hell of a first novel . . . The Dante Club delivers in spades. . . . Pearl has crafted a work that maintains interest and drips with nineteenth-century atmospherics.”—San Francisco Chronicle
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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, thoughusually 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.
Thisthis was the only name Chief Kurtz could bear to attach to the horrifying situation that was to change the life of a citywas 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 wasis 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 petreflective 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 blinkingit 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, anduntil just six months agowar, 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 nonsensicalthe elaborate and meaninglessdestruction 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. Contrabandwhich is how she still thought of the freedwomen and always woulddid 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 themtold 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 movementsharp-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.
What People are Saying About This
"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?"
"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.”
"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 bea creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting"
"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."
"Absorbing and dramatic... Pearl has proven himself a master."
Reading Group Guide
These questions, discussion topics and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of The Dante Club, a historical thriller that can be seen as the story of one of America’s first and most courageous book clubs. We hope this guide will add to your enjoyment of this suspenseful and unique novel about the power of literature.
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?