If 20-something polymaths put you off, better pass on this clever, erudite murder mystery set in the literary Boston of the mid-19th century. But you'd miss an entertaining and at times illuminating read.
Matthew Pearl, 26, a recent Yale Law School grad, became fascinated with Dante's work while at Harvard, where he earned the Dante Society of America's prestigious Dante Prize in 1998. The Society is in fact an outgrowth of a translation club founded by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Cambridge in 1865, during an era when Harvard's governing board was dead-set against admitting living languages as a valid area of study, preferring to cleave to Greek and Latin. Their reluctance also echoed the community's escalating xenophobia, prompted by the recent waves of Irish immigration. Italian, Pearl explains, "particularly represented the loose political passions, bodily appetites, and absent morals of decadent Europe." Hence, in preparing the first American edition of Dante's Inferno for publication, Longfellow's little club whose evolving roster of members included poet James Russell Lowell, litterateur/physician Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and publisher James T. Fields was involved in a somewhat seditious undertaking.
Pearl ups the ante by introducing a fictitious series of murders, each as the four appalled literati quickly realize based on a specific punishment to be found in Dante's various levels of hell. Whereas the recreations of academic chitchat (however faithful) can be a bit tedious, the pace picks up considerably once the quartet is hot on the scent: picture middle-aged Hardy Boys in frock coats. Pearl has a gift for the grisly recounting, for instance, the disjointed dying thoughts of a too-pliable judge whose brain is being slowly dismantled by maggots, or the shock of a greedy minister experiencing his first human touch in many years: "The grasp was alive with passion, with offense." His demise is especially unpretty.
It's only in retrospect that one can appreciate the intricacy of the plot. As one red herring after another falls victim, the true villain hides in plain sight. Forehead-smacking is in order when the revelation finally arrives.
In all, the novel represents quite a feat, if not quite a tour de force. It's intriguing to imagine what might transpire if Matthew Pearl were to cast off the bonds of historicity and decide, like many a successful lawyer-novelist before him, to tackle contemporary chicanery.
Sandy MacDonald is a writer in Cambridge and Nantucket Massachusetts.