In 2009, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, which was set in Washington, was met with a lukewarm reception. Perhaps the winning formula he’d struck upon in the best-selling Da Vinci Code and its sequel Angels And Demons had started to seem tired — the novelty had worn off.
With Inferno, Brown wisely returns the action to Europe, the setting for his first two books, but the formula is the same: Langdon meets a very attractive, intelligent young woman (think Da Vinci Code’s Sophie Neveu) called Dr Sienna Brooks and together the pair try to unravel a mystery with its roots in ancient literature to save the world from a deadly plague, while escaping from some evil types who are trying to kill them.
Brown cleverly adopts a new device here though — we first find Langdon coming round in a hospital bed, attended by Dr Brooks, with what seems to be retrograde amnesia. He can’t remember a single thing about the past 48 hours — and doesn’t know why he’s suddenly in Florence. A spiky-haired female assassin, who has already tried to shoot him in the head with the bullet just grazing his scalp, tracks him down but Langdon and Dr Brooks escape.
In the safety of her apartment, Langdon discovers a mysterious object sewn into his trusty Harris tweed jacket (his Mickey Mouse watch is missing), which conceals a pointing device that, when shaken, projects an image of Botticelli’s Inferno di Dante painting, which depicts the first part of the Italian poet’s Divine Comedy. But the image has been subtly altered to provide a clue, leading Langdon and Dr Brooks on a race against time across Florence and Venice to Istanbul to find a hidden deadly virus, which is set to wipe out masses.
Langdon has eerie hallucinations of dead bodies washing downstream and a mysterious silver-haired woman who is urging him to “seek” and “find”. It transpires she’s the current head of the World Health Organisation who is aware of a plot by famous geneticist Bertrand Zobrist to rebalance the world’s population before it grows so big it implodes. But she’s being held by a dark organisation known as ‘The Consortium’.
Brown is tackling provocative territory here, as he sets out the case for population control (neo-eugenics) through the eyes of his mad scientist and the consequences of doing nothing, while raising the spectre of a biological weapon of mass destruction.
While the mix of action and Langdon’s explanations of art and literature is evenly balanced, there are stretches, such as when he and Dr Brooks hide out in the Boboli Gardens, that seem overly drawn-out.
Brown is famously not the most literary of writers (what would Dante himself have thought?) but he is a master of intrigue and clever plotting — right until the close, he’s throwing twists at his readers — and with Inferno he has returned to his Da Vinci Code best.
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