Beantown follies

“The Dante Club” investigates a series of killings with the help of classic literature.

The country has just concluded a war that resulted in a massive loss of life. In theory, it also created a radically new vision of society that was based on tolerance and equality. However, tensions are running high as the nation is forced to reconsider the basic social values that hold it together. As opposing forces come to a head, another sinister force is lurking in the shadows ready to strike another blow to an already fragile community.

This is Boston, Mass. 1865. The Civil War has just ended, and Bostonians now must deal with all the unfamiliar realities of peace. The Dante Club, a group of Boston poets, is torn between office politics at Harvard University and their passion for the works of Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell are the main characters of this work of historical fiction.

“The Dante Club” is not only a story about poets and politics, but also a murder mystery of the creepiest and goriest sort. The murders that are taking place in Boston are not just common homicides. High profile “Boston Brahmins” are being killed in spectacularly gruesome ways. The poets quickly see the pattern in the murders, which mirror the punishments that are described by Dante in his “Inferno,” which describes hell’s levels and the punishments that sinners will receive therein.

The Dante Club is apparently the only group in Boston that knows the details of Dante’s work, which, until Longfellow’s translation was complete, was only available in Italian. Between turning into detectives and protecting their careers against the Puritan Harvard classicists, the poets discover that the first steps to redemption come through walking through the hellish conflagration.

The poets must also face the stodgy Harvard Board of Overseers who feels that Dante is an insult to classical Latin education because he wrote in “crude” Italian. They also had to face the anti-Catholic-immigrant sentiment that was then growing in Boston, not to mention the anti-black backlash of Reconstruction.

Matthew Pearl is a recent Yale Law School graduate and winner of the Dante Society of America’s prestigious Dante Prize for his scholarship on the Italian author’s work. “The Dante Club” is his first novel. For a first novel, this work is well thought-out and the story is woven together with colorful threads of history, mystery and intrigue.

The bulk of the narrative is captivating, giving away enough hints to keep the reader interested. Though some of the discussion seems too academic at times, the insights that Pearl gives into the characters’ inner thoughts makes the somewhat implausible plot more convincing. Pearl also masters recreating the historical time period and characters. The detail with which he describes some of the ghastly murder scenes will make your skin crawl.