Dan Brown’s Inferno is Not the First Suspense Novel to Base Itself on Dante—or on Population Control Issues, for that Matter

If you enjoyed the Dante-related themes of Dan Brown’s Inferno, you might want to check out Matthew Pearl’s 2003 crime/suspense novel, The Dante Club. Pearl tells a mysterious tale of serial murders in the 1860s, where each death scene resembles a scene described by Dante. He creates fictionalized versions of the leading poets and men of letters in the Boston area of that time period: Longfellow (who is then at work on his first American translation of the Divine Comedy), enlists Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields into a Dante Club.

The club is, at first, working together on the translation, but it then morphs into a detective agency to try to solve the murders before they do damage to Dante’s incipient reputation in America. The second part of the last sentence is Pearl’s fiction; the first is fact: Longfellow did gather around him leading poets, professors, and publishers in Boston and Cambridge and formed a Dante Club designed not only to improve his translation project taken up in his grief after the death of his wife, but to champion Dante and help familiarize American readers with the Divine Comedy. For many years afterward, American intellectuals cultivated a passion for Dante. Clubs and societies devoted to Dante were formed in many college communities and Longfellow’s translation became the American standard.

As for suspense thrillers with mad men who want to take global population control into their own hands, Dan Brown also fails to break new ground. That plot was cleverly laid out by Lionel Shriver in her 1994 novel, Game Control. Even the plot twist of otherwise intelligent people coming under the sway of the mad man’s theories (as Sienna, Sinskey, and even Langdon all eventually come to agree with Zobrist in one way or another) is foreshadowed by Shriver in her novel from two decades ago. As her publisher describes it, Game Control features:

Eleanor Merritt, a do-gooding American family-planning worker, drawn to Kenya to improve the lot of the poor. Unnervingly, she finds herself falling in love with the beguiling Calvin Piper despite, or perhaps because of, his misanthropic theories about population control and the future of the human race. Surely, Calvin whispers seductively in Eleanor’s ear, if the poor are a responsibility they are also an imposition. Set against the vivid backdrop of shambolic modern-day Africa—a continent now primarily populated with wildlife of the two-legged sort—Lionel Shriver’s Game Control is a wry, grimly comic tale of bad ideas and good intentions…Shriver highlights the hypocrisy of lofty intellectuals who would ‘save’ humanity but who don’t like people.

(This latter reference reminds us perfectly of Zobrist in Inferno—twenty years ahead of Dan Brown’s time).

Lionel Shriver’s Game Control is a great read. She is best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), and published a new book, Big Brother, this year.

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