This is an excellent book well worth the national acclaim that it has received. It’s a bit slow at the get go, as the author sets the stage for the mystery. However, this is a novel rich with national and literary history, as well as intrigue and suspense – a real page-turner.
The mystery takes place in Boston in 1865, when the city and the country were still painfully recovering from the ravages of the Civil War. The members of the country’s first Dante society – poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and publisher J.T. Fields – are studiously translating Dante’s Inferno into the first English version when they become involved in finding the perpetrator of some gruesome murders that mirror Dante’s punishments in hell. The Dante scholars-turned-sleuths furiously work to finish their translation in order to determine the murderer’s motives and second-guess his next move. Matthew Pearl layers throughout the story a commentary of important issues of turn-of-the-century United States, such as the aftermath of the Civil War and slavery, racism, immigration, religious conservatism, rampant corruption and crime.
Matthew Pearl, a Harvard graduate himself, as well as a Yale Law school graduate, is also a Dante scholar. "He wrote a senior thesis on Dante’s first American translators, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the historical Dante Club. His thesis was so well received that it won the annual Dante Prize from the Dante Society of American and proved to be the seed of his future novel." (NoveList)