Assessing Dan Brown from a literary perspective seems almost beside the point. No matter what the critics might say about his overwriting, his overuse of clichés, his paper-thin characterizations, and his impenetrably murky plots, Brown sells tens of millions of copies of every historical thriller-mystery he writes. Brown isn’t just a novelist; he’s a crossover pop culture sensation.
What’s to be said about “Inferno”? Compared with Brown’s last novel, the schlocky, silly, and badly constructed “The Lost Symbol,” his latest feels like a literary masterpiece. It seems that Brown has been learning some things about writing prose. Where he’d use three weak adjectives to describe something in “The Lost Symbol,” in “Inferno” he’ll use one, and it’s the right one. Where Brown gave us endless character monologues of a dozen or so pages each, basically dumping all his research onto the page and letting the poor reader sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly, in “Inferno” Brown offers us strong dialogue, details, and back story in digestible chunks that don’t take readers out of the story. While Brown’s writing may never be as taut and muscular as, say, mystery maven Michael Connolly’s, he’s starting to understand that “less is more” in the realm of descriptive prose.
“Inferno” has all the usual plot elements that Brown’s legions of fans have come to expect. Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon travels the globe in search of clues to a world-historical mystery, deciphering symbols taken from objects of art, and from the literature of Dante’s famous poem. The novel opens in Dante’s beloved city, Florence, where Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed suffering from (you guessed it) amnesia. And while he’ll need to piece together what has happened to him — trust me, it’s a lot — he is also being pursued by an assassin sent by a shadowy international organization that does the dirty work of the rich and powerful.
“Inferno” is already Hollywood-grade, as Brown fills his pages with picturesque locations (Florence, Venice, and Constantinople) and a predictably large number of chase scenes. Luckily for the oft-pursued Langdon, he seems to know where every hidden door and secret passageway is located. Plot predictability aside, Brown really does deliver the kind of exotically situated entertainment his fans expect. The formula has become a formula for a reason: It works in getting readers to turn the page.
“Inferno” offers us a mad-scientist villain who helpfully leaves a video of his evil intentions. The villain is also a devotee of Dante’s “Inferno,” so nearly all the clues come from Langdon’s skill at interpreting Dante’s text. The sequences and scenes of “Inferno” usually have a four-part structure: Langdon confronts a clue-symbol-text he must interpret, then has a moment of epiphany where he finds the answer, next the villain’s henchmen enter the scene and force Langdon (and his mysterious female accomplice Sienna Brooks) to flee, and finally, Langdon escapes.
Brown gives us lots of history and culture in “Inferno.” He’s obviously researched the architecture of Florence, the symbolism of Dante’s great work, and the “mad science” behind the villain’s plot. More importantly, Brown doles out his research in a way that doesn’t force his story to come crashing to a halt. In “Inferno,” Brown puts the story first, which results in a novel that’s far easier to read and much more entertaining than his research-laden last. It’s clear that Dan Brown’s “Inferno” will sell tens of millions of copies worldwide, but what’s more obvious (and pleasingly so) is that he’s getting much better at writing prose and structuring stories. In short, Dan Brown’s “Inferno” is the kind of satisfying escapist read that summers were made for.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at email@example.com.