It is 1865 and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow works on finishing his translation of Dante Alleghieri's Divine Comedy with the help of four of his friends, some of New Endland's brightest literary stars, when Boston becomes the scene of the most gruesome murders they've ever heard of. The police are baffled and only the members of the Dante Club know that the killer has taken a few pages out of the Divine Comedy itself and it is up to them to stop him.
"John Kurtz, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids." This is the first sentence of this book and it gives us a glimpse into the style of Matthew Pearl's writing. It's clever and witty but not simplistic and at a time when majority of books are written in such a conversational language it's a pleasant change of pace. It also fits the period and serves to create the atmosphere of the formality common in the higher levels of the 19th century society even in familiar company. And what a company it is! Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell were the rock stars of their time and yet Pearl paints such intimate and vivid portraits of them that by the time I turned the last page I felt like I knew them and their doting families. Of course this wasn't accidental - the author perused the poets' personal archives as part of his research for the novel. It still is delightful to see historical figures come to life the way they do here.
With amateurs acting as investigators it would be easy to categorize the book as a cozy mystery but I would say it falls somewhere between that and a hold-on-to-your-seat thriller, thanks to the fast pace and the gruesomeness of the murders, which are described in rather graphic detail. Of course this is 19th century poets being detectives so they were more horrified than majority of us readers would be, what with TV being what it is nowadays.
I appreciated that Mr. Pearl included some information on the plot and characters of Inferno as part of the story - I haven't read Dante yet and this saved me from having to put down the book to look things up online or wonder whether I've possibly missed something. It may seem a bit odd that Longfellow would need to explain what happened in the poem and why to his colleagues, all Dante efficionados, but it kept me reading so I'm not complaining.
What also kept me reading is the elusiveness of the killer's identity. I like to guess who the culprit is as more clues are revealed and here there were plenty of candidates yet the real murder managed to hide in plain sight until the very end. Bonus points to Mr. Pearl for keeping up the suspense.
This books is not just about Dante and murder though, it is also about the effects of war. The events take place after the Civil War and the effect it has on the American people as a whole and the separate individuals is very similar to what is happening in our country now with the veterans of the war in the Middle East coming home scarred for life, them and their families dealing with the consequences of their experiences every day. The gravity of this subject creates a stark contrast with the rest of the story. Granted, there are the horrors of the murders but the fact that it goes much deeper than the effects of literature on an unstable mind I think is as much a startling revelation for Holmes and the rest as it was for me, the reader. It helps demonstrate just how little their daily lives as litterateurs prepared them for the realities of life outside of their gloved circle, the realities of hunting a killer.
I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction who appreciate a suspenseful mystery, intelligent storytelling, compelling characters and a villain you can't believe you missed.