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by Matthew Pearl
Vintage, January 2004
384 pages
ISBN: 0099465981

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THE DANTE CLUB is a remarkable work by an author with impeccable credentials. Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard and Yale. He also acquired the Dante Prize from the Dante Society, the organisation which is the direct descendant of the club about which he writes.

The novel is set in 1865, just after the close of the American Civil War. Boston sees many returned soldiers from that war, many suffering from what today's world would call post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the returned soldiers, however, has been honoured in an unusual way by the city. Patrolman Rey is a mulatto. He has been accepted into the city's police force as its first coloured member. There are restrictions. He is not permitted to wear a uniform and he is not permitted to arrest a white man.

Rey is present with the police chief, Kurtz, when the murdered body of Chief Justice Healey is reported. A housemaid finds the body of her master -- the naked body, which is crawling with three kinds of insects. The distraught widow bids fair to lose her wits in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The police chief rounds up various rogues of the city in an attempt to cast some light on the identity of the murderer. One man whispers something to Nicholas Rey before plunging to his death through a window. Rey transcribes phonetically what the man said and decides he must discover the meaning of what is obviously a foreign language.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is, at the same time, engaged in translating Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. He is aided by several literary friends comprising the Dante Club: publisher J T Fields, poets James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as historian George Washington Greene. Nicholas Rey seeks their assistance in translating the mysterious words of the suicide. It is because of Rey that the Dante Club become embroiled in the mystery of the murder. They see Healey's death as a reflection of the fate of some victims in Dante's Inferno.

Augustus Manning, the treasurer of the Harvard Corporation, has threatened Fields with the loss of the business put the publisher's way by Harvard should Fields go ahead with the publication of Longfellow's translation of Dante. The Dante Club realise they must protect Dante and the translation from any association with the crime. Thus, they pretend they are unable to help Rey with the meaning of the words he has scribbled, insisting they are nonsense syllables. They feel they must track the identity of the murderer themselves.

Meanwhile, Rey has been forbidden to pursue his investigation. Instead, the detectives, a corrupt lot intent on the easiest solution and the most convenient miscreant, are called in to solve the case -- or cases, as more corpses are uncovered. The Dante Club members are increasingly alarmed as they learn of the new victims, the murders of whom reflect the progressive inner circles of hell.

This is a most interesting and intriguing work. Admittedly, at first the reader might find it heavy going because of the archaic language, but it is well worth persevering. The atmosphere generated by the author is wonderfully evocative and his characters are convincing. While Pearl, in his historical note, admits that the murders never occurred, he states that Rey is an historical composite. An added note of authenticity is that extracts from journals, poems, essays and other works of the members of the Dante Club as well as others close to them have been employed in the text of the narrative.

I can certainly recommend this book unreservedly to any reader with an interest in American literature or the work of Dante, as well as of American literary history.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, August 2004

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