The Dante Chamber

Written by Matthew Pearl
Review by G. J. Berger

On a midwinter’s eve in 1870, Jasper Morton, Member of Parliament, staggers under a rock he’s carrying, collapses in a seedy London park, and dies of a snapped neck. Words on the rock and the circumstances of his death suggest a scene out of Dante’s Divine Comedy, published 500 years before.

Prominent poets (all students of Dante) are drawn to the mystery. Christina Rossetti is joined by Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Christina’s brother, also a Dante devotee, has recently disappeared. The police, Christina, and the other poets fret about whether he is implicated in Morton’s death, will become the next victim, or has run away for innocent reasons. Other Dante-foreshadowed deaths follow.

A fired Pinkerton detective injects himself into the multi-pronged chase to solve the mysteries and find Christina’s brother. The prime suspect may be innocent; innocent bit players may be directing the carnage. The deaths may be far more sinister than garden-variety murders. Irish freedom fighters and opium dealers may be implicated. Unfortunately, the frenetic, explosive ending will strike some as both contrived and not in keeping with the carefully crafted story leading up to the resolution.

Pearl’s prose fits the period and players. He intersperses vignettes about the famous poets, passages from their poetry, as well as Dante’s life and work. His details of the time and places are well done. Readers interested in Dante or great English poets of the late 1800s will find here an engaging window into their world.