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Onyx reviews: Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno (aka The Dante Code) starts off with an interesting situation. Robert Langdon, the effete and prissy symbologist who has starred in Dan Brown's most recent novels, wakes up to find himself thousands of miles from Harvard. He has no recollection of the last two days. He's in Florence, and doesn't know why. A doctor tells him that he is suffering from short-term amnesia, probably brought about by the bullet wound in his skull.

Langdon has little time to process this information. Shortly after he calls the American Embassy, armed men show up and an assassin infiltrates the hospital, killing one of the doctors. The only person who can help is a British woman with a mysterious past and an IQ over 200. They flee from the hospital and spend the next day running from one crisis to another as Langdon tries to unravel a series of clues that start with a manipulated painting he finds in a tiny projector concealed in the lining of his jacket in a biohazard tube.

Several groups of people with possibly unrelated motives, including a shadowy organization that provides covert services to anyone with enough money and pride themselves in never failing to fulfill their brief, are pursuing him. As the day unfolds, it appears that a madman is preparing to launch an ecological terrorist attack on the planet. For reasons known only to himself, he has left a series of enigmatic clues to his doomsday device, all of them couched in the language and symbology of Dante's Inferno. Alas, it turns out (no spoiler here—this happens in the prolog) the madman is dead, but his nefarious plan can succeed without him.

Readers familiar with The Da Vinci Code and other Brown bestsellers will find themselves in familiar territory. If Langdon can't solve a puzzle straight away, the answer will occur to him out of the blue a few moments later. He has a beautiful woman on his arm, but of course there's no time for romance because they're too busy dodging bullets and drones and escaping from special forces and assassins. Every time they're cornered, Langdon will remember a secret exit that he was shown on a previous visit to wherever they happen to be at the moment.

One comes to a Dan Brown novel expecting certain things (not including plausibility or sizzling prose): puzzles, peril, cabals, conspiracies and a ticking clock are always on the docket, as well as a travelogue of some romantic venues and a situation that exploits literary and artistic references to the highest degree. Absolutely everything in Inferno relates somehow to Dante, though Brown doesn't expect his readers to be necessarily familiar with the source material. Langdon is his mouthpiece, explaining things in sometimes excruciating detail, occasionally in prolonged flashbacks that abruptly halt the novel's forward momentum.

Given the amount of time between the publication of his novels, one might expect that Brown would spend more time on the prose, which is often clunky and labored. He has a terrible habit of overstating and restating details, as if he doesn't trust his readers to remember in Chapter 14 something that happened in Chapter 10. On the other hand, he jealously conceals bits of information (the identity of certain characters, for example) for no reason other than to create a false sense of suspense. The elderly woman with the grey hair who features in Langdon's hallucinations remains unidentified, even during scenes from her point of view, until her name is announced without much fanfare. 

Still, many of these issues can be swept under the rug while the chase is on. The book truly unravels, however, when some of its subterfuge is revealed in the later stages. Much of what readers have been led to believe proves to be untrue, which can be a neat trick if it didn't kick the foundation out from beneath an already shaky edifice. As it turns out (and this is only a mild spoiler), the deadline that has been driving the novel forward like a freight train was nowhere near as important as it was made out to be. Langdon and his sidekick could have taken one-third the time or three times as long and the outcome wouldn't have been much different.

In the final analysis, one is never quite certain where Dan Brown stands—or where he expects his readers to stand—with respect to the intriguing but highly controversial opinion of his madman. The madman makes compelling arguments (which would have been very much at home in a Michael Crichton novel) and even Langdon seems to concede that he has a point. Brown's way of resolving the dilemma cuts the Gordian knot rather than unraveling it. Or, to put it another way, he has his cake and eats it, too.

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