When I first picked up the novel The Dante Club, I had the bright idea of reading it alongside Dante’s Inferno, the book around which the events of The Dante Club revolve, and I think that was probably the best way I could have read either book. Combining the two made each of the books more enjoyable and understandable.
If you’re not familiar with Inferno, basically all you need to know is that it’s a poem in which Dante descends into the circles of hell, in which each type of sinner is punished in a way that fits the sin they committed while they were living. (I admit that, along with the book itself and the novel The Dante Club, I also skimmed the SparkNotes for Inferno. It really helps to interpret the old-fashioned poetry into the horrifying images of hellish torture that Dante intended.) Many (though not all) English translations of this Italian poem keep the original rhyme scheme, and I’m glad I read a translation that did this.
As for The Dante Club, this mystery novel follows the murders of a serial killer who takes the punishments of Dante’s Inferno and applies them in real life to his murder victims. Meanwhile, the members of the Dante Club (which includes such literary figures as Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell) are attempting to translate Inferno into English, and are running into a lot of opposition from Harvard and the surrounding community.
The first hundred pages of this book felt slow to me, as the Dante Club doesn’t initially make the connection between the murders and their translation work. However, once we get to that connection, the book becomes engrossing. I loved how the author took the actual history of these real-life characters and introduced a horrific crime that only these literary giants could solve.
Reading these books together made them both exponentially more interesting. The events of The Dante Club illuminated Dante’s Inferno and made his meaning much more clear (I don’t read a lot of poetry, especially in this long form, and I sometimes got caught up in the way the words sounded rather than the story they were telling). Meanwhile, reading Inferno made the murders in The Dante Club much more powerful within the context of Dante’s hell. If you haven’t read these books already, I highly suggest pairing them. I found it to be a fascinating experience!