Fearful Symmetries

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20 May, 2010

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl



I remember when Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club came out back in 2003 and thought, "I should read that." Well I finally did and I have to say that it was most enjoyable.

It is just after the end of the Civil War and in Boston Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is attempting the first American translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Helping him are fellow poets Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and James Russell Lowell, as well as pastor George Washington Greene and publisher J.T. Fields who collectively call themselves The Dante Club. The Club itself is not a work of fiction and neither are the attempts by the Harvard community to prevent the publication of Dante's classic. The Boston-Cambridge area is beset by a series of murders and our heroes transform themselves into detectives when they realize that the ghastly crimes mirror the torments found in Dante's vision of Hell. Since so few people on American shores were familiar with Dante's work, the Club fears that they'll come under suspicion and proceed with their investigation alone instead of going to the police.

On the police side, Chief Kurtz is ostensibly in charge of the investigation but it is really Patrolman Nicholas Rey who is on the case. Kurtz deals mostly with the political fallout while Rey does the leg work. But he is hampered by corruption in the force as well as by racism. Being bi-racial, he is Boston's first non-white policeman and has had limitations imposed upon him such as not being able to arrest a white person without a white officer present.

As the intrepid translators hold their meetings and seek out who is responsible for the murders, we get a sense of who they are. Pearl does a nice job of having his protagonists deal with family and friends to develop his characters. Things like Holmes' distance from his son, the future Supreme Court justice, and his spat with Lowell add some depth that would probably not be possible if Pearl had limited the reader's view to times when the gentlemen were out snooping. Pearl uses a mixture of dialogue and third-person narration. Furthermore, a whole host of issues come up such as Officer Rey and race generally, the Fugitive Slave Act, the murder of George Parkman (again, an event culled from history), etc.

The book begins with a murder and then introduces us to the Club, Harvard's dislike of Dante, Boston, et al. I can understand if people find this section to be on the slow side but I found it very interesting. My problem is that, once the story takes a turn towards the procedural, all of the tangential issues above such as race essentially stop being developed and I wish that Pearl had kept let the story flow down these tributaries more often. One reason why I enjoy reading Neal Stephenson is because he goes on lots of tangents. He gives you the main story or stories but also lots of diversions which delve into tangential areas which bolster the main theme or themes. I wish Pearl would have done more of that and really talked about, say, Northern blacks in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Despite this, The Dante Club was a genuinely fun, suspenseful read.
|| Palmer, 2:12 PM

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