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Matthew Pearl and the devil himself

THE DANTE CLUB, by Matthew Pearl (Vintage, $26.95).

As that manly voice behind every American film trailer might intone, The Dante Club is based on actual historical events - the 1865 meetings of several Boston scholars intent on translating Dante. The novel suggests Hollywood, because this is no ordinary book club; its members number poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J T Fields. We already have celebrity: add the increasingly frantic search for a serial killer and you have one very heady tale.

The book is a little dense and disorienting at first. There are rapid shifts in point of view and setting, and rather didactic introductions to various topics: the history of the Atlantic Monthly, the Fireside Poets and the Divina Commedia itself. There is also a fake preface, written in the present day, by one "Professor C Lewis Watkins".

Perhaps this sense of confusion is appropriate. One of the novel's themes is finding a way through difficult terrain; making sense of things foreign and sometimes frightening: not only do the scholars face the task of interpreting Dante's Hell, they also become entangled in murders taking place in Boston that seem to mirror their gruesome translations.

It's an intriguing idea: a group of writers begins to witness the written word coming true with horrifying clarity. If Matthew Pearl's intention is to bring language alive, he succeeds: the Boston of 1865 is very real, where "chalky steam gushed from pipes bending outward from glass and ironworks, where sidewalks were littered with orange peels and filled with mirthful singing and dancing at odd hours". The injuries to the murder victims are meticulously described, and one senses that, just as the scholars cannot flinch from their most difficult literary exercise ever, so too does Pearl insist that the reader is party to every gruesome detail. A minister is partially buried upside down and his feet are set alight: "The two remaining blobs were protruding awkwardly from the ankles, displaced from the joints. The skin, hardly recognizable as such, was bloated, cracked open by the fire. Pink tissue was pushing out."

The language of the time, too, is faithfully rendered: beggars are described as "loungers and lushingtons"; a business entrepreneur is "a steam engine in trousers". Longfellow, although an often elusive man to his friends, is perhaps the most fully depicted character; we witness a flashback to his wife's death by fire, when he saw her dress "was now all flames, hugging her body like tailored Oriental silk"; we see his interactions with his young daughters, which are touching without being sentimental.

Pearl sometimes tries a little too hard to show the erudition of his heroes. James Russell Lowell was probably familiar with Greek mythology, but would he really pepper his conversation with remarks like "were I to drink every drop of Lethe I shall never be able to forget the sight of it"? The writing is best when it is simpler: there is a wonderful description of Longfellow's reading voice ringing "deep and true, without any harshness, like the sound of water running under a fresh cover of snow"; a rhetorical question is described perfectly as "arch[ing] above the room with the enormity of a cathedral ceiling".

At times, one senses the author's presence rather too much: Pearl seems obliged to explain many times exactly who the historical figures are and why they are famous. We are constantly reminded that this man is "J T Fields, publisher" and that man is "James Russell Lowell, poet" - one suspects Pearl is aware of the dizzying shifts and wants to make sure the reader is keeping up.

But there is no denying the page-turning quality of the novel towards the end. Gone are the self-consciously learned remarks; here the story is beautifully action-driven, and the character of Holmes comes into his own. A poet and doctor, he is the one member of the club who understands the intangibilities of the intellectual world as well as the more concrete nature of science and anatomy, and it is a lovely touch that he proves key to the resolution. Through him, Pearl prompts us to consider that we cannot live only in the world of letters; that it is dangerous to resign oneself to such an exile, as Dante did: it is human interaction, even of the most challenging kind, that allows one truly to live. When we do meet the club's Lucifer, as they call the murderer, he is not what we expect - just as Dante's Lucifer is not. This devil is, in fact, very human, almost sympathetic. A whole chapter is devoted to his background, told from his point of view, and although many writers would feel uneasy about including such a long, explanatory flashback at this point, Pearl judges it perfectly.

In many ways, the journey undertaken by the Dante Club to solve the murders mirrors Dante's own imagined journey to Hell - both he and his translators have to witness great hardship and suffering before any reward is bestowed. As Longfellow tells his troubled daughter, "only in coming through the darkest moments, sometimes, is light found". The Dante Club is, in the end, about the interpretation of literature - and about the perils of getting it wrong. This novel is original and challenging, and ye who enter should not abandon all hope: with perseverance comes reward.