Excerpt from The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Dante Club

by Matthew Pearl

The Dante Club
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2003, 384 pages
    Feb 2004, 400 pages

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Judge Healey didn't notice one way or another, but Nell Ranney, a maid for twenty years, since being driven out by famine and disease in her native Ireland, knew that a tidy environment was essential for a man of importance like the chief justice. So Nell came in on Monday, which was when she found the first splattering of dried red near the supply closet and another streaking near the foot of the stairs. She guessed that some wounded animal had found its way into the house and must have found the same way out.

Then she saw a fly on the parlor drapes. She shooed it out the open window with a high-pitched clicking of her tongue, fortified by the brandishing of her feather duster. But it reappeared while she was polishing the long mahogany dining table. She thought the new colored kitchen girls must have negligently left some crumbs. Contraband--which is how she still thought of the freedwomen and always would--did not care of actual cleanliness, only its appearance.

The insect, it seemed to Nell, gurgled loud as a train's engine. She killed the fly with a rolled up North American Review. The flattened specimen was about twice the size of a housefly and had three even black stripes across its bluish green trunk. And what a phizz! thought Nell Ranney. The head of the creature was something Judge Healey would murmur over admiringly before tossing the fly to the wastebasket. The bulging eyes, of a vibrant orange color, took up nearly half its torso. There was a strange tint of orange glowing out, or red. Something between the two, something yellow and black, too. Copper: the swirl of fire.

She returned to the house the next morning to clean the upstairs. Just as she crossed through the door, another fly sailed like an arrow past the tip of her nose. Outraged, she secured another of the judge's heavy magazines and stalked the fly up the main staircase. Nell always used the servants' stairs, even when alone in the house. But this situation called for rearranging priorities. She removed her shoes and her wide feet fell lightly over the warm, carpeted steps, following the fly into the Healeys' bedchamber.

The fire-eyes stared out jarringly; the body curled back like a horse ready to gallop, and the face of the insect looked for that moment like the face of a man. This was the last moment for many years, listening to the monotonous buzz, that Nell Ranney would know some measure of peace.

She rumbled forward and smashed the Review against the window and the fly. But she had faltered over something during her attack, and now looked down at the obstacle, twisted on her bare foot. She picked up the tangled mass, a full set of human teeth belonging to the upper chamber of a mouth.

She released it at once but stood attentively, as though it might censure her for the incivility.

They were false teeth, crafted with an artist's care by a prominent New York dentist to fulfill Judge Healey's desire for a smarter appearance on the bench. He was so proud of them--told their provenance to anyone who would listen, not understanding that the vanity leading to such appendages should prevent any discussion of them. They were a bit too bright and new, like staring right into the summer sun between a man's lips.

From the corner of her eye, Nell noticed a thick pool of blood that had curdled and caked on the carpet. And near that, a small pile of suit clothes folded neatly. These clothes were as familiar as Nell Ranney's own white apron, black blouse, and billowing black skirt. She had done much needlework on his pockets and sleeves; the judge never ordered new suits from Mr. Randridge, the exceptional School Street tailor, except when absolutely essential.

Returning downstairs to put on her shoes, the chambermaid only now noticed the splashes of blood on the banister and camouflaged by the plush red carpet that covered the stairs. Out the parlor's large oval window, beyond the immaculate garden, where the yard sloped into meadows, woods, dry fields, and, eventually, the Charles River, she saw a swarm of blowflies. Nell went outdoors to inspect.

Excerpted from The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl Copyright© 2003 by Matthew Pearl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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