Abandon common sense all ye who enter here.
Dan Brown's new novel, Inferno — its name borrowed from and its plot built around Dante Alighieri's 14th century epic poem of that title — will no doubt be the bestselling novel of the summer, if not the year. Led by his 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, Brown's thrillers have sold more than 200 million copies; the new one arrived with a first printing of 4 million.
Inferno fills out Brown's winning template: It brings back Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon and drops him in the midst of an urgent but incredibly arcane mystery in a gorgeous historical city, this time Florence (with some side trips). It offers a fine vicarious travel experience — Florence is girding for a tourism boom as you read this — and a semester's worth of history, art and architecture lectures. And Brown's short chapters, almost all of them ending in some kind of cliffhanger, did keep me turning the pages.
But Inferno also has one of the flaws that drove me crazy in the other Langdon books, and I'm not talking about the clunky, repetitive writing style. It's that the characters, including the supposedly brilliant ones, so often behave as if they haven't got a lick of common sense. I know, thrillers generally require the reader not to question anything too closely — the old suspension of disbelief argument. But some books ask us to suspend it so far it snaps.
After a prologue in which a mysterious "I" takes a swan dive off the Badia tower in Florence, Inferno gives us Langdon regaining consciousness in a hospital room in that city. Although he seems more upset about the loss of his Mickey Mouse watch and the bloody despoilment of his favorite Harris tweed jacket, he has a grievous head wound and a case of amnesia — he can remember nothing about the last two days, not even how he got to Florence, or why he came.
He doesn't get much time to think about it. Down in the street is a spiky-haired woman in black on a motorcycle — wait a minute, how did the girl with the dragon tattoo get in this book? (Later Brown will name check another publishing phenom when Langdon asks his editor to pay for a private jet: "We don't have access to private jets for authors of tomes about religious history. If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography, we can talk.")
The woman in black is an assassin, and, although he has no idea why, Langdon is her target. He's on the run before he's even fully conscious, helped by one of his doctors, Sienna Brooks, a comely young blond with a genius IQ and a shadowy past.
The ensuing mad scramble through Florence — with frequent pauses for Langdon to deliver lectures about a plethora of subjects — centers on Dante's great work about Hell, and it soon points them to a mad billionaire obsessed with something called the Population Apocalypse Equation. (Interestingly, he makes a pretty good case for it, complete with charts.) The villain believes that, for humanity to survive, the world's population must immediately be reduced by about half — and, being an evil genetic engineer with unlimited resources, he's just the guy to set the culling in motion.
But, since evil geniuses always come equipped with colossal egos, he can't resist leaving clues about his nefarious plot. So, like any bad guy would, he digitally alters a Botticelli painting based on Dante's Inferno, hides the image so it can only be displayed by a motion-activated laser inside a tiny glass tube, hides the tube inside an antique carved bone seal and hides the seal inside a titanium biohazard tube that can be opened only with one individual's thumbprint. What could go wrong?
The bad guy is not the only poor communicator. As one of Langdon's friends lies dying, he leaves a clue for the professor not by conveying it in plain English, or even plain Italian, but by referring to a canto of Dante's poem. I know, deciphering arcana is Langdon's bread and butter, but can not one person in the book just say what he means? I had a moment's true empathy with one character, Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the World Health Organization, late in the book: "Sinskey had traveled a long way and was in no mood for a cryptic conversation."
Cryptic conversations aside, the characters do stunningly foolish things, and Langdon in particular is so gullible as to inspire dozens of face-palms. If you knew that bioterrorism was possibly in play, would you get on a train and share a cozy compartment with a brand-new acquaintance whose face is covered with bleeding pustules? Our Harvard prof (and that genius doctor) do so without a second thought.
I did learn many things from Inferno. For example, whenever you have a chance to take a private behind-the-scenes tour of a historic building, the kind that shows you where the hidden passageways and attic catwalks are, do it — you never know when it will come in handy later, to help you escape from an assassin. (They apparently don't take the tours.)
But Inferno left me more often frustrated than enlightened. At one point, another message from the bad guy, this one hidden— where else? — inside a priceless death mask of Dante, mentions a Venetian doge who "severed the heads from horses," and Langdon recalls the horse-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather. I longed for a moment for Vito Corleone to show up in Inferno. He knew how to leave a clear, simple message.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.