Three things are clear about Dan Brown’s novels: The reviews don’t matter because fans are more addicted to them than drugs. Years from now, his fiction will comprise the body of work most-often associated with the spate of globe-spanning puzzle novels linking historic events to modern day criminal plots, even though the form was pioneered by Katherine Neville in The Eight. And, while his style continues to evolve, every book he writes will forever be chasing the sensation of The Da Vinci Code.
Inferno is another Robert Langdon thriller that mixes exotic locations (Florence and Venice) and ancient symbols and texts (Dante and The Divine Comedy) with a world shaking danger (the threat of a plague). Brown uses an interesting plot device here: Landgon wakes up in a Florence hospital with a head wound and retrograde amnesia. He has no idea why he’s in Florence and who may or may not be trying to kill him. (It becomes clear before he leaves the hospital room that somebody is.)
He must simultaneously solve the puzzle of symbols linking a prospective plague threat from a genetic engineer concerned about reducing the world’s population and the personal puzzle about his nightmarish dreams and how they’re connected to the story’s prospective heroes and villains. While solving the puzzle, Langdon and Dr. Sienna Brooks find numerous secret doorways and panels, life threatening moments and people who are determined to stop them for reasons as yet unknown.
In the past, Brown has been criticized by using endless historical and cultural monologues from Langdon and others to fill secondary characters in on the importance of historical events and their related symbolism. Obviously, this device was used as a way of telling the readers how centuries old stories and symbols played into the solution of an urgent problem of the present day.
Brown has toned down those monologues a great deal in Inferno and provided dialogue that more naturally fits into a story with one chase scene after another. You will no longer find five-hundred-word Langdon lectures being delivered while the bad guys are only seconds away. You will find a lot of Florence and Venice travelogue.
Brown describes the streets, museums, and ancient buildings in exhaustive detail. Imagine being chased across a town by the bad guys while having the luxury to notice every building, monument and street corner along the way, including those that don’t pertain to the story. The descriptions slow down the action but are easy to skip.
The descriptions also serve the plot because they tie into Dante and to the mad scientist who’s a Dante aficionado. The travelogues allow physical time to pass in the novel so that Langdon will have an opportunity to process the symbolism as well as the returning snippets of his fragmented memory.
Brown has done a good job stirring the characters into an ever-changing mix of people who–at any given moment–might be trustworthy or untrustworthy. The characters’ motivations and allegiances aren’t engraved in stone. The novel’s over-arching themes are the dangers of overpopulation to humankind’s survival and whether or not one should use cutting-edge advances in genetic engineering to “fix” the problem before Mother Nature solves it by purging the planet of a lot of people.
Since the themes are real, they add a compelling dose of prospective reality to a story filled with symbols, iconography, Italian art and architecture, and the multiple meanings of Dante’s levels of hell. For Langdon and the other characters, a real or figurative hell may well be the story’s destination. Brown, I suspect, hopes readers will ponder whether hell is also Earth’s destiny.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including the recently release story of love and destiny, “The Seeker.”