I am currently basking in the glow of smug self-congratulation. I didn’t figure out the whole mystery in Dan Brown’s latest novel, but I figured out where the characters needed to be — and well over a hundred pages before the protagonist, Robert Langdon, did. I suspected it even earlier, but my personal confirmation still came well before Langdon sorted through everything. High fives all around!
Confession: I do feel a tiny bit like I cheated, though, simply because this mystery was firmly in my wheelhouse. My specialties are Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance history, with a sub-specialty in history of the Crusades. Even more specifically, the disastrous 4th Crusade. No spoilers, but if you read this novel, you’ll see why I nailed it. Plus, on top of all that, I’ve even been to the place where I knew they needed to go. I have photos of it and everything.
Point is, I felt right at home in Inferno. The novel features Robert Langdon, who Brown also chronicled in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol. Out of the previous novels, my hands-down favorite was Angels & Demons. Inferno is now a rather close second favorite, and it more than made up for my disappointment with The Lost Symbol.
The main plot of Inferno opens with Langdon’s mysterious awakening in Florence, Italy, after what seems to have been some sort of catastrophic incident in which he was non-fatally shot in the head. Langdon is suffering from retrograde amnesia, and has lost two days of his life. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence, or why he’s carrying an artifact that doubles as a concealed projector of a painting depicting the levels of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. Langdon soon finds himself groping blindly to figure out not only what he is investigating, but why. Along with a doctor who was treating him at the hospital, Langdon begins unraveling a complicated riddle centered on the famous poet Dante Alighieri and his enduring masterpiece, The Inferno.
Much like the previous novels, Langdon is a sort of academic James Bond. However, where The Lost Symbol veered too far into spy/action-hero territory, Inferno stays believable. Everything Langdon does has grounding in his background as a professor and well-known speaker and author, and the stunts he pulls — while impressive — are not out of the realm of possibility for any fit adult. Langdon focuses on the mysteries embedded in the poem and the myriad art it inspired. The number of parties involved in the hunt is large, and their allegiances shift more times than I could count. Hidden motives abound. There are twists upon twists, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Brown yanks the rug out from under you by revealing yet another red herring. While I did guess the correct location, the characters, I admit, stumped me; the final reveal caught me quite off-guard.
I enjoyed Inferno immensely, and not just because the mystery fell within my areas of study and (minor) expertise. The novel is smart, fast-paced, and engaging. It manages to be thrilling both in terms of pure entertainment and the scholarly bent for which Brown has become famous. Each of his novels feels like a tour through the various locations, and I always come away with a vivid impression of the art, architecture, and culture of the novel’s respective city or cities. Personally, I think this is one of the best things Brown has written to date. In a recent interview, Brown discussed his writing methodology, part of which is a focus on what he withholds from readers, saying, “A reader’s desire to guess what I’ve hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.”
Dan Brown certainly kept me guessing, and kept me hooked. This novel is a continuation of the best traits of his earlier novels, and happily it purges the excesses that plagued The Lost Symbol. On top of the surface entertainment value, Brown poses some very interesting ethical questions, and draws readers’ attention to some serious issues that the world is facing today. Even after finishing the novel, I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — about the problems highlighted, and the potential solutions proposed by the various characters. The novel ends without definitely answering any of the questions, so I feel safe in assuming that I’m doing exactly what Brown wants from his readers: thinking about not only the novel, but the broad implications of a pressing social issue. Kudos to Brown for both the novel and the considerations that I’m sure I’ll be mulling for some time to come.