Cannonball Read V: Inferno by Dan Brown
Dan Brown really wants you to know that Sienna Brooks has a ponytail. I know this because Brown — famous author and mediocre contributor to the Tom Hanks ouvre — uses the word ponytail at least 20 times in Inferno, the fourth novel in America’s favorite dashing-symbologist series.
Here’s my thing with Dan Brown. I know that his books are considered, let’s say, “accessible” to the average American, like the third of the population who can’t name the vice president. And I understand that for some people, who prefer to exercise their brain waves on books and other materials of a more intellectual caliber, this may be a deal-breaker. I get it. I too dislike Brown’s over-attention to certain descriptors, his propensity for using big words when they aren’t needed (see what I did there?) and his seeming inability to create female characters who aren’t ponytailed intellectuals with a wardrobe of only cream sweaters. He’s got his faults.
But as soon as I settle into a Dan Brown original (with the sole exception of The Lost Symbol, which was tedious) I find myself not caring so much whether the author used a scalpel or a hatchet when culling his sentences, or if his female protagonist of the moment has ever owned a shirt in red. Indeed, Brown appears to consistently forego traditional tropes of novel-writing in the interest of one thing: telling a good story. And not necessarily the story of the present—the bulk of the action in a DB novel consists of visiting museums, escaping museums, staring at symbols, and watching Robert Langdon have intellectual epiphanies—but a story in history, of an object or topic or person.
Inferno’s focal point is Dante, and it should come as no surprise that Langdon’s traditional adventure/decode-athon begins with a map of Dante’s inferno, as described in The Divine Comedy. From there, we are taken into a whirlwind tour of Italy and beyond, all in an attempt to stop a madman’s plan for global destruction. There are museum visits, and escaping, and a fair amount of staring at symbols. There’s also the blonde, ponytailed Sienna Brooks, resident genius and Langdon co-conspirator. Basically, all the elements are in place.
Inferno moves quickly, and while I’m sure that the fourth Langdon novel contains as many factual errors as its predecessors, I was still impressed by the amount of real information included: references to architecture and art and history that you probably wouldn’t find in your typical James Patterson book. Whether or not it propels him to some special caliber of Literary Fiction, Brown has created something compelling, and fun, and as intellectually accurate as you can honestly expect of any mass-market novelist.
In my ongoing stance of “Hey, reading is reading” (note to self: get this knitted on a pillow) I’m a big fan of Dan Brown’s style. Suck them in with a traditional thriller—handsome man, mysterious woman, mystery, intrigue—and then throw out a few things people might actually learn. Florence is in Italy! Dante was a poet! The Divine Comedy was not very funny! It’s a clever strategy that a few more iterations of pop culture could stand to employ.
It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything else by Brown for me to stack Inferno up against The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, let alone Digital Fortress or Deception Point. But it feels like a strong contender for Brown’s best, hinged as it is on the extremely relevant topic of overpopulation. It’s the book to read between The Woman Upstairs and The Silver Star, or after a Dickens, on a really long flight. It’s one you can bring to the beach, and leave behind in your hotel room when you head home. It’s Dan Brown at his finest: highbrow, but not really.
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in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)