The Dante Club [Repost May 2003]

A few months ago, I read a brief description of The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl, so I did a bit of online research about the novel, and uncovered the first chapter at the author’s website. After reading a few reviews of the work, I felt that I should read the entire thing, but first I had to wait for its publication. Each of the protagonists in this work appeals to me. They are American historical figures who lived and worked in Boston during the 1860s. These fellows notice a literary pattern in a rash of local killings, so they are compelled to discover the criminal’s identity. The bulk of the work is fictitious, of course, but the novel’s premise intrigued me. Later, I ordered it and read the whole thing over a rainy weekend.

Then, I found it necessary to let this book slosh around in my skull before I recorded my thoughts.

As a rule, I enjoy novels that are grounded in historical fact. Pearl’s work is no exception. His research efforts seem of indisputably high quality, and although I cannot profess to know anything about Boston or the post-Civil War era, or even academics in Harvard, this novel resonates because of its firm historical footing: it is better than many similar genre novels.

This book hit a particular chord with me, because, you see, my employer is going through a transition much like the one Pearl depicts in 1860s Harvard. Our employees feel that, on one hand, we may be on the cusp of something new and grand; or, perhaps, if the glove is forced onto our ill-fitting other hand, a recalcitrant few in our administration may ensure that our work crumbles. It is this particular sentiment that I liked the most about Pearl’s novel. I enjoyed the lift it gave my heart. I like to see that somebody can indeed defeat the system and push a worthy agenda. All he has written about the Harvard Administration has basis in historical fact, I assume. If so, kudos to Messrs. Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell for publishing Dante’s Inferno in an atmosphere that simply rumbles with academic dissent.

This novel starts with great strength. My favorite sentence, in fact, is the second: “…the Irish woman who had discovered the body was blubbering and wailing prayers unfamiliar (because they were Catholic) and unintelligible (because she was blubbering).” I remember thinking as I read this, “Wow, this guy is young and has writing potential. What a great opening.” Pearl’s care for words is nearly as strong as his interest in historicity. It is obvious that throughout the novel he has worked hard to build a strong narrative voice.

Despite his strong opening, however, Pearl falls short with annoying consistency. A few areas glare at the reader; especially with voice transitions in the text. I recall, in particular, a scene where the narrator’s mind enters a location with Professor Lowell, and emerges from the place with Professor Holmes, without even a transitional break in the narrative. For me, these moments produce disturbing ruptures in what was otherwise a very good read.

I also felt that the end of the novel drives the work to anticlimax. The third-to-last chapter is very exciting, and the final chapter is excellent, but the penultimate chapter deadens the story. Many readers will enjoy this chapter, because the murderer’s identity and life history are revealed. It was not the information that bothered me but its delivery. It left me with the feeling that I had ridden to the top of the Ferris wheel, and was forced to wait for a half dozen other cars to disembark before the experience ended.

The novel has been lauded as a mystery, and so it is, complete with a police chief, and the intelligent but misunderstood beat cop. If Pearl’s book has a downfall, it is his construction of a heavy plot-dependency, rather than a strong treatment of a theme. A powerful, cohesive theme would have done wonders for the work; instead, the author seems to sell himself short of his full potential. As a mystery, this work is very good, but there are loads of very good mysteries out there. As a work of literature, it had the proficiency, but did not quite attain greatness.

I also struggled with one character, a beat cop. Although I readily admit that I enjoyed the character–he was well-conceived and entirely believable–I take issue with the necessity of this character at all. Pearl tells his reader that no such person existed at this time in history, so why was he there at all? His presence adds to the plot intrigue, I suppose, and serves to unveil the corrupt tactics of the post-War Boston police. But police corruption could have been unveiled any number of other ways. This novel is rooted so deeply in history that when it employs a fictitious secondary character, it only detracts from the story’s overall believability. In this novel, the line between fact and fiction is already very thin, and Pearl tends to construct his plot by erring on the side of fact. An important and extremely noticeable fictitious character is in stark contrast to Pearl’s original vision.

I cannot finish this review without mention of the foreword. Its author used a tone that is antagonistic, condescending and seemingly jealous of Pearl’s project. Shame on this person: the foreword is a pompous embarrassment that does nothing for the novel itself, and generally discredits the academic integrity of the writer of the forward itself. I read it three times with complete disbelief, hoping each time that I misunderstood what the writer was saying. Take my word and skip this foreword: Pearl’s work is due far more credit than these misanthropic statements give him.

Finally, a personal note to Mr. Pearl: Your work is excellent. If you develop a major theme, this will strengthen your prose substantially. I am confident that with your skills, you can produce a real gem.


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