More of a ‘Room Temperature’ Burn
Dan Brown’s previous Langdon books have all done one thing, and they did it brilliantly: Combine real-world locations and history with plausible mythology and a megalomaniacal madman intent on evil, then cut through the whole swath with a breathless scavenger hunt of art and riddles. It speaks for itself that each and every one of these books so far has left me wanting to travel to the same locations and retrace the steps of its heroes, see for myself the architecture, paintings and sculptures discussed in such vivid detail in the stories. Never has this been more true than in 2000’s Angels & Demons and 2009’s The Lost Symbol, which, with its modern American setting, has been one of my favorites so far.
So, naturally, I was more than thrilled when my girlfriend decided to make my day last Father’s Day and bring me the (then) newly-released Inferno. I had already long been planning on making this my summer reading, and with the book in hand so early during my break from school, things were shaping up to be enjoyable all around!
What a shame, then, that Inferno turned out to be not only my least favorite Langdon thriller, but the first Dan Brown novel I had to literally force myself through.
On the surface, the formula that has worked for the numerous previous books in this series so far has been kept intact here. Langdon is called in to solve clues and enigmatic riddles left behind and hidden within classical art. Along the way, he picks up a sidekick (I think it’s been a woman every time…?), and together they decipher the symbols ultimately pointing the way to some catastrophic event about to take place. There is an evil mastermind intent on beating them to their goal, pulling strings out of the darkness, and a more immediate threat in the form of some fearful henchman who is always just one step behind Langdon and catching up fast. So the whole affair becomes a fast-paced, flash-cut chase full of near misses and close calls.
But with all these elements in place once again, what’s not to like? The devil is in the details, or, in Inferno‘s case, the ad nauseam repetition of said details. Take, for instance, the reveal of a video clip left behind by the evil mastermind as both a clue and a portentous omen. Every few chapters, the action of the book is interrupted by shifting the focus to the organization in possession of the video clip. As various characters view the message, the reader is forced to reread entire passages describing the contents of the message again and again – the equivalent of pressing the rewind button over and over, each time progressing just a little further than the time before. But, regardless of the narrative value this may (or may not) have, each time it happens – and it happens a lot! – it kills any momentum the plot was picking up, and just makes me want to put it away for the day.
This mindless repetition was present in some other aspects of the book, too. I don’t mind the “encyclopedic” quirks Robert Langdon has; hell, his flashbacks on lectures he’s once conveniently given on just the right obscure topic to solve whatever riddle he’s facing have actually always felt organic and informative to me. And a little throwaway line about his Harris tweed jacket or Mickey Mouse watch near a book’s end made him geeky and endearing. But to be reminded of the absence of his watch and jacket seemingly every other chapter turned out to grind on the nerves a bit too much. In the end, in a book about Robert Langdon, he ended up being the character voted “Most Likely to Annoy Me”.
But I guess the book’s repetitiveness should have been expected; hell, it’s practically baked right into the story’s crust. Which brings me to my second, and far greater, issue: Giving Langdon a case of trauma-induced amnesia is such a cheap cop-out, and nothing but a filler excuse to pad the book with an extra 100 or so pages. This tactic ensures that the majority of the book’s action is, quite literally, repetition, in that Langdon is retracing his own steps and solving puzzles he’s apparently already solved before. It’s just… I don’t know, it seems like dishonest story-telling, as if the publisher pointed to the contract clause that demanded a new Langdon book be coming by such-and-such a date, and Dan Brown felt himself pushed to jam out the first thing that came to mind. Remove all the repetition and retracing of steps, and you’d chuck a significant piece of the book right out the window.
But even if left with only the parts of plot that actually drive the story along an interesting route, I still don’t feel quite satisfied with the story as a whole. A big disappointment for me was losing what I perceived to be the most dangerous villain – the pursuer, the immediate threat driving Langdon and cohort Sienna Brooks from place to place in a mad race, liable to make mistakes – actually watching her be killed off halfway through the book. We’ve still got what seems like Italy’s entire police force on Langdon’s heels, but much like James Bond, Langdon really needs an interesting and capable foil to play against.
In a good thriller, the shadow behind you, the face right behind you, always just close enough to reach out and harm you – that’s the true source of tension. Without that, everything loses its edge and becomes not much more than an admittedly brisk walk in the park. Yes, there’s another, unseen evil lurking in the wings, but we are purposely kept in the dark about him until the final pages. What about the urgency, the danger? Take that away by killing off who was set up to be the key boogeyman to be feared, and you’ve essentially put the kibosh on any dread or panic that might develop.
Now, I genuinely enjoyed the topics Inferno deals with – overpopulation and the effects of it on the planet. I found them to be much more thought-provoking subjects than in previous Dan Brown novels. But regardless of how academically enthralling I may have found the topics underlying the book’s narrative, they cannot save it if said narrative itself is bland and riddled with frustrating repetition and a lack of urgency. With the need for speed dulled, the book becomes more of a travel guide than ever before, a fact which usually added some historical relevance and value to the story, but this time appears in such abundance that it seems to be Mr. Brown’s primary purpose for devising this tale in the first place.
And what awaits those that brave the unsavory aspects of this book and chew their way through to the end, if only to see how Langdon triumphs over evil once again? Obvious SPOILER ALERT here, but after sweating through the chases and yawning through the copious history lessons and backtracking, Langdon is not even successful. In fact, we learn that the unseen timer had ticked its last and run out approximately a full week prior to the time the book even began! Is this a final twist, or a final slap in the face at the end of an unsatisfying journey? I bet you know my answer…