Reviewed by Ambrea
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl opens in Boston at the close of the Civil War in 1865. With the country trying to piece itself together again, Boston is coming to terms with the return of soldiers, wounded and damaged by a horrific war, and a brand new political landscape—and then the murders begin. Modeled after the horrible, grotesque tortures of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, these murders shock Boston society and send the Dante Club—a group of like-minded men who seek to translate and publish Dante’s work—scrambling to pick up the pieces and stop a killer before it’s too late.
I was hooked by the premise of The Dante Club: a crazed killer haunting the streets of Boston, a group of literary men (including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) piecing together a gruesome puzzle, a marginalized detective with a knack for mysteries, and a police force wracked with corruption. It’s a darkly compelling book that combines literature, history, mystery, drama and suspense.
Although Pearl weaves a beguiling story and recruits fascinating literary characters, I have to say I liked his character Nicholas Rey the best. As the primary detective in the novel, Rey was critical to the story. His side of the investigation, which ran parallel to the events in the Dante Club, helps piece together clues and shows an actual police investigation.
More to the point, however, I liked Rey for the fact that he is a spectacular detective despite the restriction of his corrupt police department and the prejudices of his peers. He’s faced with a level of adversity that the members of the Dante Club do not encounter, but he still manages to perform his duties as an investigator. He is one of the most driven, most competent and intelligent characters in Pearl’s novel—and, by far, he’s my favorite.
As a murder-mystery, The Dante Club is intriguing and intense; however, I should point out that it’s a tale riddled with blood and gore. Going into the novel, I expected carnage. What I didn’t expect was Pearl’s insight into the lives of soldiers who survived the Civil War. I grasped the social and historical context of the novel, but I didn’t realize the detail the author would put into his work. Pearl takes a long hard look at the soldiers who survived the war and sheds unexpected light on the horrors that plagued the United States during such a tumultuous time—and provides a level of precise detail that left me feeling emotionally drained.
In short, The Dante Club is a decent murder-mystery with interesting characters (an exceptional detective, I think) and a terrifying serial killer that’s sure to give the reader chills.