Inferno, by Dan Brown
Armed with nothing but tweed and factoids, can art historian Robert Langdon solve yet another supercrime?
Over the years people have asked: “What is art?” Dan Brown answers: “Art is clues!” Clues to what? “Clues to crimes!” That’s as good an answer to the question as I’ve heard. This stance turns art historians into tough guys and makes possible the words: “Help! Help! Is there a doctor of humanities in the house?”
In this book a villainous billionaire called Bertrand Zobrist plans to tackle overpopulation with a genetically designed plague unleashed in a convoluted Dante’s Inferno -themed manner. Ahem. “Help! Help! Is there a doctor of humanities in the house?”
There is! The “symbologist” Robert Langdon, and he isn’t remotely surprised to be sought after. He exists in a world where middle-aged know-it-alls regularly solve art-history-themed supercrimes and find themselves attractive to hot young doctors as a result.
If Zobrist just released the plague straightforwardly it would be a job for a virologist, and Langdon would have nothing to do in this, the fourth of his conveniently sector-specific adventures. And if Zobrist had structured his mass-murdering plans another way – themed according to, for example, the classic family board game Buckaroo – the plot would have made just as much sense but a totally different expert would have been required. (Warning: I’ve a patent pending for Buckaroo Plague Adventure, so don’t go stealing it.)
Luckily, Zobrist has signposted his nefarious activities with the Dante-themed art-history clues in Langdon’s bailiwick. Silly Zobrist. “Curse my penchant for signposting my nefarious activities with Dante-themed art-history clues. It’s my fatal flaw!” he might have added while poncing about in his medieval plague mask.
Still, his commitment to Dantean symbolism over getting his murderous job done earns him the respect of Langdon. “ Zobrist may have been a lunatic , he thought, but he certainly had a sophisticated understanding of Dante .”
Incidentally, Langdon thinks in italics, and many of those thoughts are spent explaining plot points. He starts the book in Florence with gunshot-induced amnesia (“ I’m in Florence !?”) and his Pavlovian response is to run about unravelling coded messages accompanied by his hot doctor chum and a Rough Guide to Florence , which he dips into for whole paragraphs at a time. (Sometimes Inferno reads like a guidebook that lost the run of itself.)
All this while they are chased by both the World Health Organisation and the Consortium, a shadowy criminal organisation that includes in its ranks a man having a dull interior monologue/midlife crisis on a boat and a blond, spiky-haired assassin in leathers who is always on, near or thinking about a motorcycle.
This is typical of Brown’s style. Characters are speedily introduced and assigned striking physical traits that are then repeatedly referred to. Brown can’t tell us enough times about the assassin’s spiky blond hair, leathers and motorcycle.
As for Langdon, we are repeatedly told he favours Harris tweed. The significance of this is unclear. But be in no doubt, the cloth Langdon is wearing is tweed and the variety of that tweed is Harris.
Maybe Brown has an endorsement deal with Harris tweed. Maybe his real name is Dan Harris. I don’t know. He doesn’t even mention which clothing item is made of the Harris tweed. I assume it’s a jacket, but it could be a Harris tweed loincloth, like the one Sean Connery wore in Zardoz , for all I know. I know very little about Harris tweed. Anyway, the Harris-tweed-clad symbologist – later he changes into a “Brioni suit” – is pursued by the murderous spike-haired moto- fetishist and deploys his enjoyable symbollocks across a tourist trail from Florence to Istanbul.
Of course, nothing is as it seems. Goodies turn out to be baddies. Baddies turn out to be goodies. Characters whip off wigs to reveal slightly different heads. Plausibility is stretched. There’s a controversial proposal for tackling overpopulation, of which Brown doesn’t seem wholly to disapprove. And then there’s a final twist that renders irrelevant everything that happened previously.
Langdon is pretty stoical about that. Then again, even in the midst of grave danger he’s unperturbed, noticing the sights and rabbiting on about Renaissance Italy like he’s recording an audio guide.
This is because Dan Brown likes to explain things. It’s one of the features some literary types dislike about his books. These snobs prefer stuffy impenetrable texts that assume you know the history of Europe or literary tropes or Italian or what noise the moo-cow makes. Brown rather democratically assumes his readers know nothing, and he doesn’t judge them for it. (“Langdon thought often of the cow and the distinctive mooing sound it made. Why did it favour this over the baa of the baa-lamb? It was a mystery.” This isn’t a real line from the book, but you get the idea.)
His is a pedagogical zeal that sees his characters muse informatively, inanely and unnecessarily about ebooks, transhumanism, Malthusian economics and Christian-Islamic symbolism while also feeling it necessary to note that Dante is “a famous poet” and that Michelangelo’s David is “arguably the world’s most admired nude”.
Brown’s authorial intuition tells him that meaning emerges from connecting random factoids, so he does so wildly. (A clock tower is described as “the same clock through which James Bond threw a villain in the film Moonraker .”) And this demented yen to dispense educational nuggets alongside gasp-inducing twists propels the reader towards the novel’s daft but enjoyable conclusion. (I call this authorial propulsion “Brownian motion”.)
It wouldn’t work if Brown didn’t have a solid handle on his craft. Okay, he sometimes tends towards product placement in lieu of description, and his dialogue relies on the canon – “It appears our dance has begun,” says the cackling villain, always a disappointing line unless followed by someone breaking into “the robot” – but he’s a bit of a genius at plotting and pacing.
All in all, he gets the job done . . . much like symbologist and tweed-wearer Robert Langdon. Langdon’s job, lest you forget, is solving crime through cultural criticism. I bet, as a literary critic, I look pretty cool to you right now. (Note to self: purchase Harris tweed.)
Patrick Freyne writes regularly for The Irish Times .