Book Review: Inferno doesn’t quite go down in flames

By Sean Sullivan

In his most famous book, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown brought the renaissance artist back into fashion. However, with his last two books, Brown has trailed behind, playing catch up with existing cultural obsessions. In his latest novel, Inferno, Brown returns again to modern culture’s fascination with all things Italian.

American pop culture has recently refocused on Italy in the last few years, specifically Florence and Venice. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 2 seems to have begun this trend in 2009, followed by the game’s sequels in 2010 and in 2011. The television show The Borgias aired in early 2011 and this year saw the premiere of Da Vinci’s Demons.

Brown plays with the fads and fears of modern culture, introducing various historical and contemporary theories of society, art and science throughout his books. For Inferno he draws on the love of Italy, history and complex puzzles, as well as the fear of memory loss, disease, climate change and overpopulation. As with most of Brown’s fiction, the book is a social criticism shrouded in a detective-fiction plot, sprinkled with historical facts.

The settings, themes, characters and situations in Inferno are not especially unique. The similarities to numerous popular works of detective fiction from the last decade are noticeable over the first 12 chapters, including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Bourne Identity and Indiana Jones. The book begins with what feels like a blend of Larsson’s The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and The Bourne Identity as Robert Langdon awakes in the hospital with amnesia and someone trying to kill him.

The book resorts to many of the crutches of genre fiction — dream sequences, excessive internal dialogue and obnoxious metaphors and similes. Many of the characters are so eccentric or outrageous they would not be out of place as James Bond villains. But fans don’t read a Dan Brown novel for the writing. They read it for how well Brown manages to weave real world locations and symbols into a cohesive whole.

Brown has been accused of playing fast and loose with historical facts in all his Robert Langdon novels, mashing together symbols and coincidences to produce underlying mysteries from ages past, but Inferno is easier to swallow as it abandons the hidden mysteries of human history in favour of a contemporary puzzle, invented by a modern-day villain and layered over the ancient relics and symbols. By situating the source of the extravagant treasure hunt in the modern day, as the brainchild of an obsessed mind, Brown ensures the mystery is less contrived than his previous novels. Believing an antagonist used obscure clues pointing to various works of art as bread crumbs in an elaborate game is much easier than accepting a secret society that buried clues for later generations to uncover.

The plot of the novel is never as impressive or as interesting as how Brown manages to connect so many different works of art — that is the real mystery. The best moments in the book are as each new symbol and location is revealed and the reader gets to see the connections to previous historical landmarks and symbols. Those moments make the book worth reading. On top of that he manages to interlace those connections with real world concerns and fears.

Unfortunately the puzzles that Robert Langdon needs to solve at intervals throughout the book are few and far between as the story gets distracted with describing the Palazzo Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and other Florentine and Venetian architecture during Langdon’s carefully explained flight through the Italian streets and gardens. The plot is further broken up by the lengthy, often pedantic history lessons.

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