By People Staff
February 17, 2003 12:00 PM

The Dante Club
By Matthew Pearl

A judge eaten alive by maggots. A minister buried upside down, his feet set aflame. Blame not Hannibal Lecter but the imagination of 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno rests at the center of Pearl’s debut novel. In 1865 Massachusetts, the famed Fireside Poets—Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—gather to translate the Inferno into English when a series of murders inspired by the epic turns them from dilettantes to detectives.

The idea of grizzled poets playing action heroes does stretch the imagination. But the 27-year-old Pearl, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a Dante scholar, ably meshes the (at times didactic) literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures. “Writing is not survival of the fittest but survival of the survivors,” says Pearl’s jovial but insecure Holmes. “[Critics] do their best to cheapen me, to make me of no account—and if I cannot endure it, I deserve it all.” Pearl, for one, needn’t worry about that. (Random House, $24.95)

BOTTOM LINE: A divine mystery