Randy M.'s Reviews > The Dante Chamber

The Dante Chamber by Matthew Pearl
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really liked it
bookshelves: first-reads, reviewed

The Dante Chamber is a continuation of the story begun in Matthew Pearl’s very popular novel, The Dante Club. The latter revolves around a series of murders relating to the eternal torments inflicted upon fallen souls in Inferno, the first canticle of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The Dante Chamber progresses further into Dante’s vision of the afterlife with a series of murders relating to the Purgatorio, which is the next canticle in The Divine Comedy.

In The Dante Club, the murders are investigated by a group of famous historical literati. Of that group, only Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr. joins the team of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Christina Rossetti, as they investigate a new slate of murders. Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a literatus in his own right, has gone missing during the time of the murders and Christina fears he may become the next victim.

I don’t want to delve into the mystery behind the murders and the search for Christina’s brother, because to do so would require too many spoilers. Suffice to say that a radical interpretation of The Divine Comedy, especially as it relates to Beatrice, is at play. Humanity’s purgatorial destiny is playing out on the streets of London.

I particularly enjoy how Matthew Pearl breathes life into historical figures that many of us have heard of, but may know little about. There is something very stimulating about portraying these people in the present tense, placing them outside their normal element into a situation we can all relate to. Now, not being a literary scholar, I can’t speak to how well Mr. Pearl captures the essence of each historical figure, but to me that’s not necessarily the point. He succeeds in sparking my interest to learn more about them and their works, all the while entertaining me with a murder mystery.

The author also informs us, in a subtle way that does not distract from the narrative, of some of the particular artistic contributions of these historical figures, and occasionally some insight into their creation. For example, in a train ride discussion with Holmes, Tennyson regards his Idylls of the King saying, “By King Arthur I always meant the soul and by the Round Table I meant the passions and capacities of a man.” This is what I love about historical fiction, the opportunity to provide small nuggets of insight into artists and their creations within a broader fictional narrative.

As with most Matthew Pearl novels, characters from prior stories reintroduce themselves, sometimes playing a large role, as with Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr., and other times making a brief appearance, as with Whiskey Bill and Fergins from The Last Dickens and The Last Bookaneer. Simon Camp from The Dante Club also plays a prominent role in The Dante Chamber. There are probably others I am overlooking. This seems to be a common occurrence anymore, with authors keeping all their stories within the same fictional universe.

The Dante Chamber is a worthy successor to The Dante Club, and a fine example of historical fiction. If this is a genre that appeals to you, Matthew Pearl is an author you should read. One has to wonder if a further continuation of the story will be forthcoming. Though how you construct a murder mystery around the cardinal and theological virtues of Paradiso, rather than the categories of sin from Inferno and Purgatorio, is something I cannot fathom.

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Reading Progress

April 16, 2018 – Started Reading
April 16, 2018 – Shelved
May 21, 2018 – Finished Reading

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