In “The Dante Chamber,” Matthew Pearl’s new thriller — a sequel of sorts to his 2003 bestseller “The Dante Club” — murder takes a literary turn. Sparked by Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy,” the crimes are solved by a crack team of poets and painters: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and the American doctor-poet-essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes (not to be confused with his son and namesake, the great Supreme Court justice).
The murders take place in London in 1870. In the first murder, a member of Parliament is killed in a London park; a massive stone has inexplicably been tied around his neck and broken it. Soon thereafter an attractive woman dies on a London street; her eyelids have been sewn shut.
Gabriel Rossetti, who was in the park during the first murder, disappears. His sister and friends fear for his safety, even as the police suspect he was the killer. Gabriel is fond of opiates and given to erratic behavior. When his wife died he impulsively had all his unpublished poems buried with her. Later, to the horror of many, he had them dug up.
Christina, in her late 30s, is attractive, shy and talented. Robert Browning is in his late 50s and still mourns his beloved wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He is drawn to Christina but knows his heart “is buried in Florence” with his wife. Tennyson, then England’s poet laureate, joins the search for Gabriel and proves to be seriously self-important. Oliver Wendell Holmes is intelligent and personable.
More murders follow, all modeled on deaths in the Divine Comedy. The woman whose eyes were sewn shut recalls the Envious who suffer that fate in Purgatory for coveting the happiness of others.
If writers interest you, you’ll enjoy Pearl’s evocation of these esteemed authors, who prove to be all too human. Christina, the heart of the novel, rejects all suitors because she’s determined both to find her brother and to give her all to poetry. To Browning, “there was something heroic about her, like a figure out of a fairy tale wrapped in fire.”
Gabriel Rossetti’s angry rants about critics’ “conspiracy to persecute me” echo a timeless refrain among writers. We share Browning’s touching memory of his wife’s final moments: “ ‘How do you feel?’ he asked her. ‘Beautiful,’ came her smiling reply. Within a few minutes she died with her head on his cheek.” She lives on in the famous sonnet that begins: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
During one literary debate, Gabriel declares that “The three greatest English imaginations are Shakespeare, Coleridge and Shelley.” Whereupon Tennyson insists “The one I count greater than them all — Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, even Byron — is Keats.” With all due respect to Keats, it was good to see a bit of praise for Shakespeare amid the book’s incessant Dante-worship.
The literary talk is fun, but the solution of the murders is less so.
Pearl offers three main villains. The most important is a strange, beautiful, lethal woman called Sibbie, who is said to be a “veritable prophetess” who “shared the spirit of Dante’s Beatrice.” That’s high praise in this book, but Beatrice was celebrated for her goodness whereas Sibbie is the coldblooded architect of numerous deaths.
She and two confederates have a large property in the English countryside where they train recruits to their cause, which appears to be world conquest. “We can fill England and beyond with our believers,” one of her henchmen boasts, although only a few dozen of those believers exist.
When one of our poet-sleuths falls into Sibbie’s clutches, the others set out to the rescue. A bloody confrontation ensues, one that goes on far too long and largely defies belief. Pearl does far better with poets than with criminals.
Near the novel’s end, Oliver Wendell Holmes offers this memorable farewell to Christina:
“How small a matter literature is, Miss Rossetti, to the great, seething, toiling, struggling, love-making, bread-winning, child-rearing, death-awaiting men and women who fill this huge, palpitating world of ours!”
Those are words to remember.
Patrick Anderson who regularly reviews crime fiction for the Post, is a Washington novelist and journalist.
By Matthew Pearl
Penguin. 356 pp. $28