January 14, 2007

The Dante Club

The Dante Club
Matthew Pearl


(January 14, 2007)

Writers of historical mysteries need to accept that some people walk. They don’t run, they don’t dash over the frozen Charles in the middle of winter, pursuing nefarious suspects. They don’t throw punches. They seldom raise their voice.

Matthew Pearl’s mystery, in which Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, and J. T. ("Ticknor and") Fields jointly translate Dante and catch a serial killer, must necessarily endure buckets of exposition. These were famously expository fellows. It was an expository era. Pearl draws them well — Holmes and Longellow brilliantly — and accepts that a lot of the action is going to come in drawing rooms and studies and hired cabs. He even contrives a nifty plot obstacle — an outbreak of horse distemper — to show us how effortlessly he can hide the seams if he chooses.

It's not necessary to mar these well-drawn characters by forcing them into physical action. There’s plenty of excitement in the struggle for the soul of Harvard and the American intellect, so there’s no urgent need for fisticuffs.

I 'read' this as an audiobook, but accidentally purchased the abridged version. Back when audiobooks came on cassette, abridgments were common and, in my experience, were done with care. In this case, the scars are too clear to overlook.