The Dante Club
by Matthew Pearl
A New York Times Bestseller
Words can bleed.
In 1865 Boston, the literary geniuses of the Dante Clubpoets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J. T. Fieldsare finishing America's first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard College are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of foreign superstitions into American minds will prove as corrupting as the immigrants arriving at Boston Harbor.
The members of the Dante Club fight to keep a sacred literary cause alive, but their plans fall apart when a series of murders erupts through Boston and Cambridge. Only this small group of scholars realizes that the gruesome killings are modeled on the descriptions of Hell's punishments from Dante's Inferno. With the lives of the Boston elite and Dante's literary future in America at stake, the Dante Club members must find the killer before the authorities discover their secret.
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and an outcast police officer named Nicholas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, must place their careers on the line to end the terror. Together, they discover that the source of the murders lies closer to home than they ever could have imagined.
The Dante Club is a magnificent blend of fact and fiction, a brilliantly realized paean to Dante's continued grip on our imagination, and a captivating thriller that will surprise readers from beginning to end.
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1. Discuss how the various characters benefit intellectually and professionally from their association with the "Dante Club" reading and translation group. How is the group similar to book clubs now popular throughout the United States? How does it differ?
2. (Follow-up) What's the secret of the power of collective reading? Compare the dynamic of the Dante Club to your own book club or reading group.
3. The death of Fanny Longfellow leads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to take "refuge" in his translation of Dante. Discuss why Dante in particular seems to help him through his dark period. How is his sanctuary affected by the outbreak of violence from that same work of literature?
4. (Follow-up) Are there ways in which literature has provided a refuge in your own lives at difficult or confusing times?
5. In Dante's Divine Comedy, Dante's poetic idol Virgil leads him through the dangerous passages of the afterlife. In what ways do the characters of The Dante Club guide one other? Who would you say is the real leader?
6. How does the backdrop of the American Civil War influence the events of the novel?
7. Did you guess who the murderer was before it was revealed?
8. (Follow-up) Come on, did you really?
9. (Follow-up 2) What are the ways in which the author "misdirected" the reader from the murderer? Or, if you had correct suspicions, what tipped you off? In what ways were the murderer's motives surprising? What do they reveal about the exploration of different types of "reading" that runs throughout the novel?
10. Discuss some of the instances in modern culture in which an artistic work music, film or literature seemed to have some impact on inspiring a crime. Some examples: Mark David Chapman carrying "The Catcher in the Rye" when he shot John Lennon; the Columbine killers supposedly drawing inspiration from Marilyn Manson songs and the video game "Doom"; several instances of people imitating "Natural Born Killers" in robberies and shootings. In that last instance, John Grisham led a campaign to prove Oliver Stone held responsibility after a friend of Grisham's was killed. Is the work of art ever to blame? Do the murders in The Dante Club stem from the brutality of Inferno?
11. (Follow-up) Should the Dante Club members have revealed the source of violence to the public? What was at stake besides their reputations?
12. Discuss Patrolman Nicholas Rey's role in the challenges facing the Dante Club, with consideration for Rey's status as a type of "exile" in Boston, and how this fits into the larger story.
13. Discuss the character of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Why does he emerge as the character in the novel with the heaviest burden? What elements of his personal background make the events of the story so disruptive and frightening to Holmes?
14. (Follow-up) Discuss Dr. Holmes's relationship with his son, Wendell Junior. How does it compare or differ from James Russell Lowell's relationship with his daughter, Mabel Lowell?
15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the "gallery" of THE DANTE CLUB website (www.thedanteclub.com). Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?
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"Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition... with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both."
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Audacious and captivating."
Adrienne Miller, Esquire
"Mr. Pearl's triumph is mixing these two cultures: wealthy, cultivated men of letters faced with the mysterious and seedy streets of a 19th-century Boston... creating not just a page-turner but a beguiling look at the U.S. in an era when elites shaped the course of learning and publishing. With this story of the Dante Club's own descent into hell, Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike."
Kimberley Strassel, The Wall Street Journal
"Pearl, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a Dante scholar, ably meshes the literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures... A divine mystery."
Julie K. L. Dam, People Magazine (Page Turner of the Week)
"Just about anyone who admires smart historical fiction will get a literary jolt out of Matthew Pearl's gory first novel... His Civil War memory fragments alone add up to one of the most unforgettable accounts of that chapter of American history yet written."
Celia McGee, The New York Daily News
"How the club and the police compete and then converge is the mystery and the thrill in a preternaturally accomplished book as wise as it is entertaining. 'The Dante Club' is a carefully plotted, imaginatively shaped, and stylistically credible whodunit of unusual class and intellect... The writing is passionate, the narrative
Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe
"Pearl has achieved that intoxicating blend of reality and imagination that Doctorow gave us 25 years ago with Ragtime. Here's hoping Pearl decides to spend his career writing novels and letting that Yale law degree go to waste. The world has enough lawyers. Great novelists are in short supply."
William Mckeen, The Orlando Sentinel
"Pearl masterfully synthesizes countless aspects of mid-19th-century life into a riveting mystery that creeps through all corners of crippled postwar Boston. To steal a revelation from the book: Lucifer did not create hell; it was Dante. In The Dante Club, Pearl adds one more diabolical ring."
Christopher Bollen, Time Out (New York)
"This novel is as erudite as it is bloody. It swings from an account of exotic maggots eating a man alive to a discussion of the finer points of Dante's artistic and political vision. The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak."
Chris Kidler, The Baltimore Sun
"'The Dante Club' is a richly detailed microcosm set generously before us. Within it, wit, erudition and a healthy respect for good old fashioned hugger-mugger conspire to produce one of this year's most agreeable entertainments."
Bruce Allen, Raleigh News & Observer
"Pearl does what a good historical novelist has to do: Look at the past by the light of the imagination, creating a fictional situation -- there was of course no actual Dante killer in 1865 Boston -- to animate the ideas, issues and personalities of the time... There aren't many writers around who can remind you of both James Patterson and Umberto Eco."
Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News
"Young author finds a 'Pearl' in mystery. Boston winters are cruel, and Matthew Pearl captures every icy finger of wind, every sinister shadow and more than a few human-induced chills in 'The Dante Club'... Pearl is a young author worth following. He's created a work that should appeal to history buffs, literary buffs and
crime fiction fans alike."
Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post
"A hell of a first novel... The Dante Club delivers in spades."
David Lazarus, The San Francisco Chronicle
"The Dante Club is a thoroughly accomplished first novel. Matthew Pearl does a marvelous job of evoking the period and making it come alive with finely drawn characters and an ingenious story."
David Liss, Edgar Awardwinning author of A
Conspiracy of Paper
"A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history."
Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost
"In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl expertly combines rollicking entertainment with serious insights about Civil Warera America. The book is fun, smart, and enviably audacious."
Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and The Real McCoy
"This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term 'thrilling' genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths."
Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost
"The Dante Club is pure pleasure for the reader, magnificently informed without being stuffy, gripping without being merely sensational. I particularly enjoyed the nice, easy swing of its pacing. This book can be savored."
Peter Straub, co-author of Black
"An ambitious and entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr."
"Expertly weaving period detail, historical fact, complex character studies, and nail-biting suspense, Pearl has written a unique and utterly absorbing tale."
Booklist Magazine (starred)
"Matthew Pearl's dazzler of a debut novel, The Dante Club, is just what an historical thriller should be--a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting"
"A devil of a time... Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"Absorbing and dramatic... Pearl has proven himself a master."
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