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Inferno, by Dan Brown
(Doubleday, 482 pages)

06/06/13
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



You remember that author Dan Brown has a local connection when this sentence shows up late in Inferno, his latest book featuring Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon:
 
“Langdon had once attended a celebrity wedding reception at New Hampshire’s historic Runnymede Farm — home to Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image.”
 
Huh, I thought, and, not knowing a lot about horseracing, I later Googled and read about Runnymede’s horses on its website, where I also found clips from NH Chronicle and found out that Brown and his wife are actually helping to restore Runnymede. Langdon, central character in Brown’s books including The Da Vinci Code and the most recent The Lost Symbol, doesn’t talk about the Browns, of course, but he does offer thought-exposition about the Friesian horses (the type raised at Runnymede). It’s a twisty road of information that takes us from Runnymede to a clue in the scavenger hunt through Italian Medieval and Renaissance art that is this adventure, but he gets there.  
 
Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Botticelli’s Map of Hell, the Black Death, an assortment of domed and secret-passageway-having buildings of architectural import in Italy and elsewhere, sculptures, bits of history about Venice’s onetime economic dominance of the region — Inferno, like previous Langdon books, gives us a historical mystery, a sea of shadowy pursuers and an investigation of a modern crime that could plausibly hinge on the brain of someone who is essentially a history professor. But it also gives us guidebook-like snippets about Michelangelo’s “David” or the cultural significance of the “Inferno” section of the Divine Comedy. Look over there, that dome was constructed using gold tiles. And let’s stop to consider the biohazard symbol, and how it came to be. Or perhaps you’d like to hear more about Dante and his love of the unattainable Beatrice? 
 
Inferno, more than I remember the other Brown books doing, really crams the trivia in there. With a copy of Inferno and a good memory, you could totally kick butt on Jeopardy! if the category were ever “Italian Renaissance Art.” You could also find yourself skimming over some of these factiods in the interest of getting to the action already. Brown’s chapters are short; sometimes one thing — Langdon remembers the signifigance of X statue — happens before the scene ends and takes us to action happening elsewhere. While individually each little nugget is intersesting — why, yes, “Hercules and Diomedes” is kind of a hilarious sculpture — they sometimes weigh down the story. 
 
That story? Langdon wakes up in a hospital with a head injury and no memory of where he is or why. Because it’s Robert Langdon and he can navigate by Italian architecture like MacGyver can build a bomb out of shoe polish and tooth picks, he figures out he’s in Florence. But no sooner does he get his location than people start shooting at him and chasing him, and before you can say “potential love interest” he and a comely young doctor are on the run trying to solve a puzzle involving Dante that may explain why he’s in Italy. Meanwhile, a shadowy organization is trying to figure out what to make of a client’s last wishes. Meanwhile meanwhile, a doctor with the World Health Organization is drugged and in a car surrounded by armed men. (She’s older, so maybe Meryl Streep? Or Blythe Danner? Paul Bettany would be great as the mysterious green-eyed man who appears in flashbacks except, of course, that he was already an albino in The Da Vinci Code.)
 
Because, yes, while I doubt the history of Friesian horses will make the jump to film, I do expect the game of chase through Italy will. Brown’s Langdon books have a very cinematic feel to them — to the extent that sometimes it feels like you’re reading a screenplay. The inner thoughts of characters feel less like gateways to their souls and more like the direction Tom Hanks will get about what he’s supposed to be doing in this scene. It makes the books very beach-readable but, like a popcorn movie, not something that stays with you. 
 
Not that Dan Brown needs a few extra bucks from me, but I would have slid them his way had there been an annotated e-version offered. As it is, this book seems perfect for the e-reader: easy to flick through, no need to refer back to a map of Middle Earth or something. But it would have been even more fun — and perhaps appeal to those who need some fiber even in their literary snackfood — to have direct links to images of the famous this or the ancient that. It wouldn’t have stopped the flow any more than the lengthy descriptions of same, and it would have given me a reason to give it a second skim. As it is, I doubt this will join Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre on my shelf of regular rereads.
 
If you are of the “Dan Brown, why I never” pearl-clutching mindset, nothing in this book is going to change your opinion. It is not brilliantly written, and I won’t even touch the plausibility of the science presented here. But the book is well-constructed for what it is — a lightweight action adventure for nerds. If you like the idea of a sort of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? for adults — with shooting! — then add this book to your pile of lazy-days-in-the-hammock reads. B- — Amy Diaz





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