Matthew Pearl, Author, C. Lewis Watkins, Preface by . Random $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-375-50529-4

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THE DANTE CLUBMatthew Pearl. Random, $24.95 (382p) ISBN 0-375-50529-6

Talk about high concept: in Pearl's debut novel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell team up with 19th-century publisher J.T. Fields to catch a serial killer in post–Civil War Boston. It's the fall of 1865, and Harvard University, the cradle of Bostonian intellectual life, is overrun by sanctimonious scholars who turn up their noses at European literature, confining their study to Greek and Latin. Longfellow and his iconoclastic crew decide to produce the first major American translation of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Their ambitious plans are put on hold when they realize that a murderer terrorizing Boston is recreating some of the most vivid scenes of chthonic torment in Dante's Inferno. Since knowledge of the epic is limited to rarefied circles in 19th-century America, the "Dante Club" decides the best way to clear their own names is to match wits with the killer. The resulting chase takes them through the corridors of Harvard, the grimy docks of Boston Harbor and the subterranean labyrinths of the metropolis. It also gives Pearl an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that he's done his history homework. The detective story is well plotted, and Pearl's recreation of the contentious world of mid-19th–century academia is engrossing, even though some of its more ambitious elements—like an examination of intellectual hypocrisy and insularity in the Ivy League—are somewhat clunky. There are, as well, some awkward attempts to replicate 19th-century prose ("But for Holmes the triumph of the club was its union of interests of that group of friends whom he felt most fortunate to have"). Still, this is an ambitious and often entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr. (Feb. 11, 2003)

Forecast:Pearl, yet another multitasking law school student, is 26 years old—his precociousness may spark interview interest, particularly in the Boston area.

Reviewed on: 10/07/2002
Release date: 02/01/2003
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