It’s been four years now since our last encounter with Robert Langdon, the be-tweeded hero who has Da Vinci’d and Demon-ed his way through three previous Dan Brown page-rippers.
Brown’s last book, “The Lost Symbol,” came out in 2009, smack in the vortex of a Brownado — a whirling era of “Da Vinci Code” European tour packages and Tom Hanks’s second cinematic turn as the lank-haired Harvard symbologist. “The Lost Symbol” seemed of the moment and of particularly heightened American interest, set as it was in D.C.
Tuesday marks the release of “Inferno,” Brown’s newest Langdon installment. One is still excited — one must be; Doubleday is printing a whopping 4 million copies — but the anticipation feels different. At this point, it’s already clear what Brown can do with the genre. He has perfected the breathless art of the cliffhanger chapter, the ooky villain, the historish backdrop. His novels are like high-stakes, 500-page Mad Libs; a reader doesn’t have to worry that it will be a fun ride, just that the adverbs and proper nouns will line up in a way that honors the art form.
Which brings me to the surest way readers can tell whether they have landed in a Dan Brown novel: A character is dying — a wizened character who is the sole possessor of a crucial piece of knowledge. Rather than using the last minutes of his life to scrawl, “The [IMPORTANT OBJECT] is in the [SPECIFIC LOCATION]” on a crumpled napkin, he uses them to concoct an artsy, esoteric scavenger hunt through a foreign city.
The city in “Inferno” is Florence, where a hospitalized Langdon has awoken with a head wound that leaves him unable to recall how or why he arrived in Italy. Fortunately, his fetching doctor, Sienna — a former child prodigy with an absurd IQ — is willing to sling him on the back of her moped and help him figure it out: retracing his pre-amnesia steps and learning how Dante’s “Divine Comedy” can aid them in foiling the posthumous plot of an evil genius. Discovered in Langdon’s rumpled clothes, see, is a small projector that displays a pictorial rendition of Dante’s vision of Hell.
Meanwhile, three competing entities nip at their heels: an enigmatic female punk assassin, an enigmatic researcher with the World Health Organization and an enigmatic businessman who runs an organization called The Consortium — an MI6/CIA/Blackwater hybrid that specializes in doing complicated things for rich people.
“Fact,” Brown writes in the book’s short preface: “All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real.”
But that can’t be right, can it? Not when a simple Wikipedia search tells me that one of the important artifacts is believed to be a reproduction, not the real thing the reader is led to think it is. The Consortium is real, too, Brown writes — and it might be, but would such an organization really have its headquarters in a giant yacht floating around in the Adriatic Sea?
No matter. As with Brown’s other works, it’s more fun to read “Inferno” when you accept that every whoa-ful tidbit is true. Brown is at his best when he makes readers believe that dusty books and musty passageways are just covers for ancient global conspiracies. There is plenty of that in “Inferno” — at one point Langdon laments that he hasn’t seen Michelangelo’s “David” yet on this trip, but the reader would hardly notice. It feels like we’ve seen everything else in the city, at a brisk, engaging clip.
Unfortunately, at other times the book’s musty passageways seem to be not so much holding history up as sagging under its weight. Narration appears lifted from a Fodor’s guide, as when Langdon pauses in the middle of a life-or-death escape to remember the history of a bridge: “Today the vendors are mostly goldsmiths and jewelers, but that has not always been the case. Originally the bridge had been home to Florence’s vast, open-air market, but the butchers were banished in 1593.” It’s like trying to solve a mystery while one of those self-guided tour headsets is dangling from your ears. (Step over this prone body and press 32 to learn more about the velvet box containing Dante’s death mask in the Palazzo Vecchio.)
Ironically, one of the more compelling mysteries in “Inferno” doesn’t have to do with art history, but with science future — with very real questions about the population explosion and humanity’s responsibility for the Earth. It would have been interesting to see those questions wrestled with more, but that kind of novel would probably take place at a sterile public health conference, not in a series of cobblestoned Italian streets. It definitely wouldn’t star Robert Langdon.
And what about Robert Langdon? I’ll confess that I love Robert Langdon. In this, in “The Da Vinci Code,” in anything. He’s a windbag, he’s pretentious, he talks too much about his tailored British suits, but he maintains respectful, mostly platonic relationships with a series of brilliant, intimidating women.
Read “Inferno” to learn a bunch of “Divine Comedy” trivia, sure, or to watch a smart man make wild deductions based on Renaissance symbology. But also notice that when it comes time to flee for his life, the smart man lets the lady drive.
Hesse is a Style writer and the author of “Stray,” a novel being published next month.
By Dan Brown
Doubleday. 461 pp. $29.95