A book I picked up randomly while browsing the neighbourhood library shelves, it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. There’s something about Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and J.T. Fields taking up the mantle of not-so-swashbuckling, somewhat-intrepid crime fighters that tickles your fancy. The writer takes you to an age when authors, poets and professors are celebrity; yes they are a bit full of themselves but very literarily so! The book takes its time going through Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the protagonists discuss and debate the translation and interpretation, and consequently it’s impact on the events of the book. This might discourage the people who aren’t interested in classical literature, and expect a fast mystery/thriller read, but this is what, in my opinion, really sets the book apart. That the book meanders, holds true with the natures of the protagonists. Also, the plot throws up plenty of red herrings, which again is in keeping with the nature of the book.
Lowell punching people or alternatively holding them at rifle point, Holmes threatening to shoot Longfellow with a Revolutionary war musket and Longfellow brushing his daughter’s hair are just some of the instances that humanizes the historical figures and adds depth to their fictional characters. The writer seems to have done careful research on the lives of the literary figures and the actual Dante Club; on the post civil war American society and the challenges faced by people of colour even in the ‘tolerant’ north, PTSD among civil war soldiers and the character of the city of Boston in mid-nineteenth century focusing on the standing and the influence of Harvard as an institution.
There are some misses: like Nicholas Rey running after hearing alarm bells (what did that link to?), a long tangent into the life and psychology of the killer at a critical moment and the somewhat confusing and pointless exploration into the relationship of Oliver Wendell Holmes and his son just to name a few; but a book with such gems like ‘hyperbolic hen’, ‘now salute your progenitor’, a small discussion on how ‘a husband was wholly useless’ in trying to determine the inappropriate repositioning of the nether regions of one’s dress, ‘may the mutton be as tender as Longfellow’s verse’, ‘a good dinner has always been humanity’s greatest blessing’ and carriages careening down streets at a pace far beyond the ‘moderate trot’ set by the Boston Board of Safety liberally sprinkled in does not fail to amuse.
Finally, another book about books. The bibliophiles will enjoy it.
The Dante club is also March 2013 TwitbookClub selection
Cover Image via Goodreads