There is a serial killer on the loose whose inspiration is Dante’s Inferno (reminded me of the movie Seven only hundred years earlier). Of course, the police are stumped (except the token African-American on the force) and the only people that can solve the mystery are America’s notable scholars at the time – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, etc. etc.
There are two main plots: the murders (which by the way are extremely gory and rival any Stephen King novel) and the hunt to find the murderer; and the historical Dante Club which was centered around Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who completed the first American translation of Dante’s Inferno and introduced it to the US. The second plot is actually much more interesting than the first because there are in-depth discussions about Dante’s Inferno which now that I am an adult sounds like a much more appealing read than when it was required in high-school. Within this plot is the struggle between these authors/poets who are passionate about Dante and the Harvard University Board who believed that Italian was a pagan language and that the introduction of Dante would be subversive to American society.
The murders carefully follow the progress of the Dante Club’s translation of Inferno and the reader is exposed (without being subjected to a blow by blow discussion) of Dante’s main beliefs on suffering, evil and hell. Not only did the book inspire me to actually contemplate re-reading Dante’s Inferno but also created interested in reading the poetry of Longfellow and learning more about Oliver Wendell Holmes.
What amazed me was that this is Matthew Pearl’s first book and it was published in 2003 when he was 27 years old. The release of this book actually helped Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno to be reissued by the Modern Library after being out of print for forty years.
This is a great book for this blog because the actual Dante Club could be viewed as one of the first, great literary clubs whose members joined together once a week to collectively translate, study and discuss one of the world’s classic poems – the Inferno.