It’s easy to be a Dan Brown critic: just laugh down your nose at his overly florid descriptive phrases, complain about other great authors being ignored, and encourage readers to join with you in hating the man and his books. Nearly all such reviews, however, miss the point – Brown’s work is not meant for the literati, but simply as page-turning escapism. And that is where he excels – anyone that disputes the man’s ability to keep readers up late at night reading ‘just one more chapter’ obviously hasn’t tried to write a book of that type before. It’s a talent, and it is what most of Brown’s readers want from his work – not to ‘work’ their way through the novel as some sort of endurance event, but as a sprint, either after work or while on holiday, whisking them away to exotic locations on a thrill-a-minute adventure. The other arrow in Brown’s quiver is his ability to take a location with fascinating history behind it, and use it as a city-size puzzle for the reader to try and fit together as the action progresses. Between the page-turning, and the hit of satisfaction to the reader as they complete more of the puzzle, his books are casual-reader-cocaine.
Dan Brown seems well aware of the ridiculousness of his fun thrillers occupying the stratosphere of book-selling – in the new book there seem to be parodic hat-tips to other publishing phenomena 50 Shades of Grey and The Girl Who… series. Certainly, there are plenty of other authors out there with Brown’s skills (and more), and this doesn’t seem to be something Brown doesn’t know. They, however, weren’t fortunate enough to hit upon the highly combustible mix that Brown put together with The Da Vinci Code – a combination of page-turner, puzzler, AND one ‘big idea’ that caught fire: that the Catholic Church covered up secrets, in particular the importance of the ‘sacred feminine’. Though the success of that one book guaranteed Dan Brown massive sales of succeeding books regardless of their content, even Brown himself couldn’t replicate the alchemy of The Da Vinci Code with his next book, The Lost Symbol, even though he seemed to have all the same ingredients, just with a change of big idea. To many though, it was the oversize helping of the ‘big idea’ in The Lost Symbol that ruined the mix, overwhelming the taste of the puzzles and making the meal difficult to digest quickly.
So with the release of his latest novel, Inferno, I was interested to see what approach Dan Brown might take to try and recapture the magic of The Da Vinci Code. I knew already that he had selected Florence as the location, and thought it an ingenious choice: the city has historical roots, both orthodox and esoteric, that stretched down as deep as the hell of one of its favourite sons, Dante Alighieri. And speaking of that famous Florentine, Brown also stated he was going to use the great Italian poet’s classic of the same name as the basis for the plot of his new book. My expectations were high, and in my fun ‘primer’ Inside Dan Brown’s Inferno, I explored the roads (and back-alleys) of Florentine history that I thought the best-selling author was likely to walk down in his own Inferno.
So how did I go in predicting the elements of Inferno? My chapter on Dante’s life and literature would certainly have been helpful to readers of Brown’s new novel, giving them essential background material to better understand the references made in the book (his love of Beatrice, his expulsion from Florence, the content of his Inferno, etc.). But those topics were a given really; not so much any sort of psychic skill on my part. In terms of locations in Florence I covered many that Brown placed within his adventure: the Boboli Gardens, the Vasari Corridor, Palazzo Pitti, Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio (including the ‘Cerca Trova’ message on the Vasari painting, and Dante’s death-mask), the Dante Museum, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, along with quick references to the likes of the Uffizi and Il Duomo. I even suggested that Robert Langdon might make a side-trip to a nearby city such as Milan or Venice, and the latter was included. I didn’t see the other, more distant city that Brown used in Inferno, although I did discuss it occasionally in my coverage of the history of the Renaissance. And speaking of that ‘history’ section, I had a few ‘hits’ as well, such as suggesting that the villain might quote the philosophy of another famous Florentine, Machiavelli – and I even discussed the Black Death and its possible role in triggering the Renaissance, not realising how that would be central to the plot of Brown’s Inferno.
Where I fell down badly was in the chapter on ‘mysteries of history’, covering much of the secret and esoteric history of Florence and some its most famous products, convinced as I was that Brown would seize upon these elements as he did in The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. Much to my surprise, Brown avoided these topics like (*cough*) the plague. Even in the context of the Florentine central to the plot of the book – Dante Alighieri – Brown made no mention of some of the esoteric associations that have been put forward regarding the great Italian over the years…including the esoteric ‘facts’ about Dante Brown himself discussed in The Da Vinci Code! In almost 500 pages of scrambling to understand how the villain of the book might be using Dante’s masterwork in his dastardly plan, Robert Langdon – eidetic memory and all – suddenly seems to have no recall of his previous adventures in which he held forth on the ‘initiate’ Dante, and the esoteric significance of the number 33 (which is a number fundamental to Dante’s masterpiece). Likewise, at another point when he thinks of the Apotheosis of Washington in the U.S. Capitol, there is no memory of the big esoteric adventure he recently had starting at that very location (in The Lost Symbol). The deafening silence on these topics suggests that this was a purposeful move away from esoterica on Brown’s part.
In my opinion, this is where Dan Brown falls down badly too. Don’t get me wrong – there’s also plenty of merit to not delving too deeply into esoteric history and philosophy in a fast-paced thriller. The Lost Symbol suffered somewhat on account of this aspect (read the reviews, most readers were confused by it), and Inferno feels a much ‘tighter’ affair as a result of the removal of these discussions. But Brown winds the clock back past not only the Lost Symbol, but also The Da Vinci Code, with the feel of Inferno more similar to his earlier novels. Many (perhaps most) readers won’t mind this at all – a lot of people have told me their favourite Dan Brown novel is actually Angels and Demons, rather than TDVC. But to me, once Dan Brown loses the esoteric element, he becomes just another thriller writer. What has set him apart from other writers is his ability to gracefully connect disparate aspects of esoteric history into a cohesive plot. Instead, in Inferno, we get a book set in the ancient city of Florence, which has as its central story genetic modification and overpopulation (as an aside, viewers of a certain British TV series that aired earlier this year will note, perhaps with a certain smugness, that Brown was beaten to the punch by a few months with his plot trick involving the villain’s grand plan).
This feels criminal. In my primer, I only scratched the surface of the topics that were available to Brown in choosing the great Renaissance city. From household names like Da Vinci and Michelangelo, to lesser known esoteric giants like Marsilio Ficino and the mostly forgotten (by the public) genius of Renaissance polymaths Brunelleschi and Alberti, the options were overwhelming. But instead, Brown takes us through the city like he’s reading from a (condensed) Lonely Planet guide to Florence: here’s that statue, here’s that painting, here’s that building (the unnecessary name-checking is relentless: one example is the mention of Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” for no apparent plot-related reason; and a boat-ride in Venice takes 10 pages due to the list of locations Brown runs through, despite them not being of any importance to the plot). Forget the deeper esoteric aspects – Brown barely even educates the reader with an overview of the Renaissance and the reign of the Medici, meaning that even the simple historical context of each individual piece is largely lost. To then leave the city just over halfway through the book, and have Langdon traveling to two additional cities, illustrates that Brown had plenty of time to go into more depth, in the one location on Earth that surely deserved it. Brown himself seems to lament this failing; as Langdon leaves the city, Brown has him realising with sadness that this is the first time he has visited Florence without going to see Michelangelo’s David.
Instead, in Inferno any history – including the central theme of Dante’s epic poem – is subsumed within the ‘big idea’ that Brown covers in this latest novel – that of the impending danger of overpopulation, and how it might be addressed. Using Florence and Dante as the scaffolding for this idea is an odd choice – the occasional attempted parallels between the disparate subjects, such as overpopulation ‘recreating Dante’s hell on Earth’, seem forced as a result, and as mentioned above the mass of wonderful history and fascinating Renaissance ideas and philosophies that were available to use are instead passed by or addressed only superficially. Even with all the discussion about scientific advances and concerns over what they meant for humanity, we find no mention of another of Florence’s greatest sons, the scientific ‘saint’ Galileo Galilei. Similarly, for an author who is a fan of cryptography and loves to insert secret code puzzles into his book, it seems strange that the pioneering Florentine cryptographer (and artist/architect/poet/priest!) Leon Battista Alberti doesn’t rate a mention. I am unable to divine, however, whether these oversights were part of a deliberate attempt by Brown to keep things leaner than his previous novel, or whether they were simply gross mistakes of research. Either way, in my opinion such oversights are unforgivable.
But for all my criticism, I think most readers will actually enjoy the book. It’s very much a standard Dan Brown thriller that conforms to his previous winning formula: Robert Langdon wakes up in a strange city; he teams up with a beautiful, intelligent woman; they roam around the city solving artistic and architectural puzzles while being pursued by some sort of ‘assassin’. I’m guessing the general public will probably eat it up as an entertaining and quick ‘disposable’ read – and if I came to it with no expectations, I’d probably do the same. There are some caveats – for instance, the forced health issues of 3 major characters, in order to deceive the reader as to their true motives, are beyond contrived (to the point of laughable), and the use of Transhumanism as a ‘scare’ topic seems completely unnecessary. But the topic of overpopulation, and the moral dilemma of killing some to save many (along with the cute analogy of cutting off a gangrenous leg), does offer a decent topic to explore that could also generate some debate and controversy (and interestingly, readers will probably come away with the impression that Brown thinks a ‘sensible’ population cull wouldn’t be such a bad idea).
Just don’t explore that topic using the Old City of Florence Dan! For me personally, I’ll likely always see Inferno as a novel that promised so much, but failed to deliver despite having an embarrassment of riches (literally and metaphorically) at its disposal. But perhaps that’s just the sad fate (or sour grapes) of a guy that could see what it might have been (and wrote about it in a pre-publication primer, leading readers up a blind alley on that particular topic).
However, I still read Inferno in a day, so Brown hasn’t lost his knack of producing a page-turner. And that’s probably all that most readers want…