Literary Crime Fighters: Part I

February 24, 2010 at 12:00 am 9 comments

Famous literary figures of the 19th century band together to solve a mystery that is threatening the safety of their city, their very lives, and their livelihoods in the 1860s.

This is the log line I’ve come up with that fits two books I’ve read recently equally well. Amused as I am by the similarity of premise but dissimilarity of execution, I’ve decided to write about them both in relation to each other. The first is reviewed here this week and is The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, wherein Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a band of Bostonian literary heavy weights (including James Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes) band together to solve a Dantesque series of murders that threaten the safety of Boston. The second, to be reviewed next week, is Drood by Dan Simmons, in which Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins band together to find the mysterious and possibly dangerous Mr. Drood who threatens the safety of London.

The Dante Club made me want two things. The first was to read Dante’s Divine Comedy (preferably translated by Longfellow, but almost any version would do). The second was to conjure up any remote affection for Boston, Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and/or postbellum New England. I fear it was my lack of regard for any of those five components of The Dante Club that made the whole book merely passable when it could have been incredible. Therefore, I present this review to you in the form of a good old pro/con list and I’ll let you make the final judgment (har har).

– Matthew Pearl is clearly a man in his element in the literary Boston of the 1860s. His research is perfectly done and the setting is painted in loving detail, giving the reader just enough information to feel like you’re there, but not too much that you feel like you’re reading a history text book.
– Points for bookishness! The entire plot revolves around an intimate understanding and knowledge of Dante’s life and work, which gives Pearl another opportunity to show off his literary chops. The fine writing of the main characters is another chance Pearl happily takes. Since they are all real historic figures (and famous literary ones to boot), it could easily be challenging to get them all down, but they seem accurate enough and, even if they aren’t, they are well-crafted characters with unique personalities.
– The one fictional character Pearl takes it upon himself to create (Nicholas Rey, the first black police officer in Boston) is by far the best part. Rey represents a fascinating historic moment directly after the Civil War and his personality (intelligent, slightly frustrated at his place in the world, and, above all, extremely good at his job) is extremely likable. You want to spend more time with this guy. Pearl would have been better served in this novel by focusing entirely on Rey and leaving the historic figures to the sidelines (see below for my gripes about them).
– Pearl is also a very vivid writer. You will notice this most after the murders are described in all their often gory glory. *shudder*

– Despite his clearly strong ability to do research, write vivid death scenes, and present characters as individuals, too much of Pearl’s work in The Dante Club comes off as rather dull. You are carried along simply from a rather dreary, vague desire to know who the murderer is rather than galloping along, breathless to know.
– Also, Pearl’s decision to use all real characters seems to have weighed him down slightly as he attempts to make sure they are portrayed accurately. This desire for accuracy often stops the narrative as Pearl takes a moment to point out some historic truth about them.
– Forgive me, and this may just be my own personal con, but Boston (YAWN), post-Civil War (YAWN), Longfellow (YAWN), and Harvard (YAWN). This was clearly not a book intended for me. I fear my own lack of interest in mid-century America (and Boston more specifically) really made this book not shine for me. Transplant the whole thing to Britain and I am 90% sure I would have enjoyed it a good deal more.

Happily for me, that is very close to what Dan Simmons did in Drood. Stay tuned for next week’s review of the London take on literary crime fighters. (Spoiler: It involves LT’s favorite Wilkie Collins playing disgruntled and drug-addled Watson to Dickens’ indefatigable Holmes. Huzzah!)


Entry filed under: Historical Fiction, Mystery. Tags: , , , , .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  February 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Amazing log line! Someone needs to write that movie — though I guess that someone is not Matthew Pearl. As much as I have an affection for Boston, I think I’m going to give this book a miss. Dante’s Inferno, however, is going to have to go on the Classics Challenge list for April!

    • 2. Corey  |  March 2, 2010 at 10:21 am

      Seriously! I would see that movie like 12 times in theaters and then rent it and then buy it and then force everyone else to watch it. Are you listening, Hollywood? There’s an opportunity here!

      Oooh! Dante for April; I like it!

      • 3. KT  |  March 2, 2010 at 12:03 pm

        I think we need to just walk into the offices of William Morris and shout that logline at anyone in there who will listen. Too bad we didn’t seize that opportunity when you were in LA!

        And Dante is now added to my list, alongside Elizabeth Gaskell. April’s list is coming along nicely!

      • 4. Corey  |  March 2, 2010 at 2:18 pm

        Good idea! We’ll take the place by storm!

        Is Cranford the one on the list or something else?

      • 5. KT  |  March 2, 2010 at 10:45 pm

        It’s actually Wives and Daughters — someone suggested I make a Molly Gibson doll, so I feel like I should read the book first. Really the one I want to read is North and South, and silverseason suggested Cranford, so who knows what I’ll end up with in the end!

      • 6. Corey  |  March 3, 2010 at 7:59 am

        So much Gaskell! I’m so unaware of her, I’m always surprised when there are so many of her books out there. I’m sure whichever you choose will be lovely. :)

  • […] fits two books I’ve read recently equally well even though they are two very different novels. Last week I talked about the first, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. This week, we cross an ocean and turn to […]

  • 8. Natalie  |  March 25, 2010 at 8:38 am

    I’ve been a lurker for a few days and am now going back and reading some of the earlier entries. I was so glad to come upon this one! I picked up The Dante Club at a used book store recently because it looked mildly interesting (and for $2, mildly interesting is sufficient to justify a purchase). Corey’s assessment of the book leads me to believe that I am highly likely to enjoy it. It’s been a while since my freshman seminar on Dante, but I’m hoping that’s left me with enough knowledge to appreciate the references in the book.

    And KT: I highly recommend North and South. I haven’t read Cranford or Wives and Daughters yet, but I Netflixed the Cranford miniseries and absolutely loved it, which leaves me with high hopes for the book.

    • 9. Corey  |  March 25, 2010 at 9:45 am

      We love it when lurkers surface, so welcome! I’m also glad to hear that my review was helpful. I’m still divided about The Dante Club, but I think it was definitely worth $2 and a read. At the very least it wasn’t a bad book by any stretch!


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