Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Dante Club



Here in Somerville, there's this wooden house with a signage saying "Dante Club est. 1908". It has an American flag hoisted above a MIA/POW "Never Forget" flag, and an huge parking lot with few cars in. I don't know what that building is. Occasionally, when walking by, I see a private party going on inside and wonder if it's a bar or a private club. Given the foundation year, 1908, I like to think it used to be a speakeasy and that the secret code to get in is still the same. It is curious that this house is merely 15 pedestrian minutes away from the Longfellow Park a place where a better known Dante Club was established in mid1860s.

Most of what I know from that older Dante Club came from the novel "The Dante Club" by Matthew Pearl, a thriller set in the post-civil war United States. The book tells the story of a group of Harvard scholars that are, at the same time, contributing to a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy and solving murders. While the detective work is fiction, the meetings between this group of scholars, led by Longfellow, did occur. And that is one of the strongest aspects of the book. He makes these historical figures come to life in a way that feels real. The description of their conversations, whether on Dante or on Harvard or on their routine lives show the author studied carefully his sources.

The thriller aspect of the novel, on the other hand, is lacking. It is an interesting idea, to have murders executed by a Dante inspired killer. But the link between Dante's work and the detective work is very superficial making the scholars seem schizophrenic: wise when translating, ignorant when investigating. An example is their naming of the killer as "Lucifer". As an example, there is the nickname given to the killer, Lucifer; in Dante's work he is a vanquished figure, not the Hades style torturer implied by the nicknaming. And the flow of the investigation doesn't help. The investigation has several jerky turns which instead of displaying confusion on the detectives, makes the narrative itself confusing. There is also a "red shirt officer" effect that is a product of the fact that the story deals with historic characters: the non-historic ones are the only ones in jeopardy, and that doesn't allow for a buildup of tension. Finally, the book often forces moral issues on us, specially towards the end, which feels too preachy and incredibly bothersome.

It is a good story that I recommend for the residents of Cambridge and the fans of the poets described on the book; it certainly makes you go back in time and make your walks along Brattle Street a bit more interesting. It will be also interesting for fans of detective stories, given the how innovative the idea is. But it's not exactly a strong book otherwise and if you don't have ties to any of the characters, which include Boston and Dante, then you may want to skip this one.

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