This novel is a great read; one of suspense, horrendous murder and intrigue, poetry and war. Set in the mid 19th Century, it revolves around poets and writers, who form the Dante Club to support and advise the American poet H W Longfellow, while he completes the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The Dante Club takes us through the changes in Boston wrought by the American civil war including the huge increase in violent crime. Slavery may have been abolished but black Americans continued to suffer and the American people were bitterly divided on the issue. Soldiers who fought in the war, aimlessly walk the streets of Boston, physically and mentally broken. One soldier relives his experiences daily and I for one had no idea how brutal that war was considering it was mostly Americans fighting each other. The two sides were infiltrated by foreigners who had their own agenda for joining up.
American universities of the times were managed by wealthy and sometimes bigoted business men. One particular university pressured the influential Longfellow to give up his quest to translate Dante’s work, believing he should concentrate instead on promoting American writers, not a foreign writer who dwells on ridiculous stories about hell and who has been exiled from his own country.
Matthew Pearl cleverly weaves all of these issues into his book. For instance, the first black police officer in the Boston police force, who is involved in the search for a serial killer, is not permitted to wear a uniform, has to hide his badge under his jacket and is subjected to racial comments and bullying by fellow officers. Strangers in the street hurl constant racial slurs at him. Corrupt politicians change the law so that detectives could claim the substantial financial reward offered by the wealthy widow of one of the victims, for the killer’s capture.
On top of all of this, Mr Pearl manages to incorporate the fascinating subject of entomology to help solve one of the most gruesome murders. The insect in question is Cochliomyia Hominivorax whose methods are as bloody as the killer’s.
Mr Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American Literature in 1997, and in 1998 he won the Dante Prize from the Dante Society of America. – Anne Frandi-Coory 15 March 2011