Run, Robert, run: Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’

‘The Da Vinci Code’ author’s breathless new book is out now. But is it any good?

Inferno by author Dan Brown went  on sale yesterday. Photograph:  Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Inferno by author Dan Brown went on sale yesterday. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Wed, May 15, 2013, 02:00

Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno is prefaced with an ingenious page stating “Fact: All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real. ‘The Consortium’ is a private organisation with offices in seven countries. Its name has been changed for considerations of security and privacy,” followed by an explication of inferno as, “the underworld as described by Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy .”

The brilliance of Dan Brown is that he builds a world within what already exists, blurring the lines between ludicrous conspiracy and legitimate references. It’s the kind of style that has historians blue in the face, and pulp-loving holiday-novel readers flipping the pages of his books with glee.

So who or what is “The Consortium”? Manchester United? Starbucks? Scientology? KPMG? The intrigue-o-meter is already turned up to 11 before the first page is turned, and it barely subsides until the final pages. Inferno travels at breakneck speed, yanking the reader from chapter to chapter and from hidden passage to painting.

The plot is achingly familiar, with Robert Langdon racing around Florence as if the city is a pinball machine of light-up symbols, blinking codes and beeping messages within which Langdon and only Langdon can get the high score. We begin with the tweed-loving professor of symbology in hospital, suffering from amnesia, a bullet wound in his head, hallucinating a silver-haired woman with an amulet.

He’s in Florence, and he doesn’t know how he got there. An attractive ponytailed doctor genius called Sienna Brooks is tending to his needs. A mysterious silver object is in a new pocket in his tweed jacket (where did that come from?). Someone is trying to kill him . . . run Langdon, for Chrissake!

With Deception Point and Digital Fortress , Brown failed to reach the heights of The Da Vinci Code , but Inferno bristles with so much energy, fun and ridiculousness that there’s a sense that he’s really going for it. Ten years after the Opus Dei-bating Da Vinci propelled him to fame, selling more than 80 million copies, Inferno is the closest he’s got to replicating its formula successfully.

There’s one big let down, though. The parallel baddie plot falters almost immediately. The shadowy Consortium and its key member The Provost are nowhere near as iconic as some of Brown’s villains. There’s a veiled Stieg Larsson reference with Vayentha, a spiky haired gun-wielding female motorcyclist, and the bones of the plot’s beginnings are undoubtedly Bourne trilogy territory, as dodgy government forces initially chase our amnesiac hero.

Naturally, there are the usual Brown tropes: there are cliffhangers at the end of almost every chapter; jolting split-screen shifts to different settings; exhausting historical references; entire encyclopedias of symbols; and an incredulous tone throughout.

Brown is also a slave to italics as a mechanism for highlighting a realisation or revelation, or to conclude a piece of real action, adding even more to the unnecessary staccato feel throughout.

But as Dolly Parton once said, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Brown’s stylistic pummelling might enrage fans of syntax and subtlety, but the story fizzes along, although random diversions towards the World Health Organisation (yes, really) and the ultimate realisation that Dante’s Inferno is not actually the best blueprint for a caper, means we’re left without a killer punch.

Inferno is even more dense with description than Brown’s previous work. His determination to reference every location with his own minute and clunky detail often leads to some unintentionally funny lines: “Normally, Langdon’s visits to the Palazzo Vecchio had begun here on the Piazza della Signoria, which, despite its overabundance of phalluses, had always been one of his favourite plazas in all of Europe.”

The perils of setting the book at a contemporary time, where mystery is diluted by the fact that everything is known or at the very least easily accessible, is also a drag.

Langdon and Brooks’s lives are made slightly easier since they can Google some of the riddles on a phone, which is kind of like giving Indiana Jones an iPad with Apple Maps before dropping him off at the entrance to the jungle.

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