On paper, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club is exactly my cup of tea. It has it all: murder, detectives, geek-heroes, and intertextuality. Set in 1865, the story revolves around a series of murders based upon Dante’s circles of Hell in Inferno, which only a group of super-brainy American Dante-academics can solve. It’s all there, on paper, and it should be perfect. But – and I’m going to be brutally honest here – it REALLY missed the mark. Here’s why:
This book was bought for me as a gift a few years ago. As someone who is easily disturbed and suffers from night terrors, I wisely chose to wait until an emotionally stable moment in my life to read it. I had great expectations for this book, not least because of the dramatic preface, ‘A Caution to the Reader’, by Professor C. Lewis Watkins (Cambridge, Mass.), which ends with the warning: ‘Please, if you continue, remember that words can bleed’. When I first read this line, sitting, as I was, in Peterborough train station, I immediately laughed out loud. However, once I had regained my composure and reattached my serious-and-very-important-academic head, I got a bit of a quiver down my arms from excitement, thinking that this book would change my life. WRONG.
I am a very lazy reader. I will read if it’s something I want to read. I will become distracted and reluctant to invest any attention if the prose is bad. And this prose is awful. I know I’ve never written a novel or even had anything published (yet), but I know good writing when I read it, and this was anything but good writing. And the reason WHY the prose was so bad: it was just TOO GOOD. I know this seems like a HUGE contradiction, but it’s true. Pearl seems to have gone all-out to prove that he knows his Dante facts; he throws them in left, right and centre. The narrative is simply one good line after another and it’s relentless and tiresome.
I wanted to quit after about three pages, because I’d actually had to read those three pages about twelve times to understand the prose (so bad is the grammar and sentence structure). However, I’m currently trying not to quit things when they start getting hard, so I persevered. This was one of the worst decisions of my literary life (and I read ALL of the Harry Potter books in the vain hope that the quality of writing would EVENTUALLY improve), and I am now following my gut-reaction regarding such decisions (i.e. NOT jumping on the Fifty Shades…bandwagon).
As a story, The Dante Club is a brilliant concept, and there’s no denying that Matthew Pearl has an incredible imagination. But to be quite truthful, if I were you, I’d wait until they turn it into a film.