Florence prepare yourself, the book-buying world is about to beat a path to your door. Dan Brown’s previous best-selling novels have sent literary tourists scurrying to an array of destinations in Europe and beyond, hot on the heels of Robert Langdon, the author’s recurring hero. His latest work will do the same.
Inferno sets off at a cracking pace in the historic Tuscan capital, its “seek and find” mission trailing Langdon and Dr Sienna Brooks, his attractive and dangerous companion, across a succession of the city’s most beguiling attractions, pursued by a small army of baddies (or are they the good guys?): the Boboli Gardens, the Mappa Mundi, the Hall of the Five Hundred and the city’s historic cathedral complex. Later, Venice and, finally, Istanbul make appearances in supporting roles, but the Italian Renaissance city is the undisputed star here.
The plot hinges on Bertrand Zobrist, a deranged biochemist and cultural philanthropist. Zobrist holds some fairly unpalatable theories about the fragility of our existence, believing that unless a “catastrophic event” significantly reduces the steepling rate of population growth, the human race will soon be wiped out. Dismissed as an alarmist crackpot, he takes matters into his own hands, committing suicide, but not before he’s genetically engineered an airborne-carried sterility virus, one that will have devastating effects on the world.
Zobrist plans to unleash the virus via the slowest of underwater fuses but he can’t resist leaving cryptic clues as to its whereabouts, all of them buried amid the fog of Dante’s Inferno, the literary masterpiece that recounts the poet’s own descent into the underworld, and Botticelli’s La Mappa dell’Inferno, the Renaissance artist’s visualisation of that work. Only one man can save the day.
It is a great set-up, but there are gripes. Brown’s villains and the pack chasing Langdon are almost universally cartoonish. Improbable plot developments are the norm rather than the exception.
Langdon himself remains that most frustrating of heroes. Too smart by half, the walking equivalent of Google, able to summon facts in fractions of a second, even when under the most intense pressure. He’s still only sketchily drawn: we know he’s a good-looking Harris Tweed-wearing academic colossus, but we don’t ever really inhabit his skin. Good fortune and serendipitous moments arrive in Langdon’s lap whenever he finds himself in a tight spot.
And then there is the “tall and lissome” Dr Brooks. She is reputedly a fearsome intellect – a virtuoso violinist, a supreme linguist – but really she walks through Brown’s pages as a kind of literary eye candy, ready to be wowed and wooed by our Harvard hero and to trip him up too. Inevitably, in a book where nothing is what it seems, she comes preloaded with a never-ending set of dark secrets.
None of this will stop the Brown juggernaut, nor should it. Inferno is often fantastic fun. Enjoy the thrill of the chase, enjoy the European sights, enjoy the guilty pleasures of this “swim into the unknown”, just don’t question how Langdon always manages to conjure the right answers. Not all of us can be as smart as he is, nor would we want to be.
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