Good grief! Dan Brown does Dante

Inferno by Dan Brown (Doubleday)

-Reviewed by Boyd Tonkin

On page 334 of Inferno, Dan Brown's tweedy Harvard iconographer Robert Langdon reveals to Sienna Brooks - a British-born misfit genius who gallops around three favourite tourist destinations with him in this latest adventure - that ‘We're in the wrong country’. Cue a flight out of Venice, where a plot rammed to bursting-point with guide-book factoids and the vintage formulae of apocalyptic science-fiction has shifted from its opening location in Florence.

Readers will know soon enough that the third, and decisive, city of Inferno is Istanbul. Once there, we learn under the gilded dome of the cathedral-mosque-museum of Hagia Sophia that “the traditions of East and West are not as divergent as you might think”.

Listen out for the agonised wailing of lost souls who staked their tie-in stunts on a bankable Florentine showdown. The torments of Dante’s damned - in the event, more a trigger to the action of Inferno than a regular sound-track to its twists - will have nothing on their bitter grief. Indeed, the esoteric lore of the Florentine Renaissance, which unlike the arcane rigmarole of The Da Vinci Code does have some solid basis in history, plays a much smaller role here than all the predictions supposed.

Even Dante’s vision of hell drives the intrigue not so much in its original form (although the publishers of Allen Mandelbaum’s workmanlike 1980s translation will be glad of Langdon’s praise) as in the guise of Botticelli’s series of illustrative drawings, here customised to carry vital clues.

When we do finally come to the verses that hold out the key to the mystery to those ‘possessed of sturdy intellect’, they deviate from actual Dante into our devilishly clever villain’s pastiche of his poetry. For Brown has a distinctly hi-tech approach to salvation, and damnation, to purvey.

The Turkish finale will not shock everyone. In December 2009, Brown paid a visit to Istanbul. He took a tour around those sites in Sultanahmet at which Inferno careers towards its trademark chase-and-reveal climax. One of the city’s heritage chiefs later speculated that Brown ‘could write a novel about Istanbul’. Well spotted, Mr Faruk Pekin. But will the already-busy hoteliers of Sultanahmet appreciate the looming infestation of Brown fans?

As it happens, looming infestations lie at the heart of Inferno. Be warned: if what follows sounds like a spoiler, then at the close Brown will play a hand packed with jokers.

For much of the novel, it appears that he has taken off the shelf one of the dustiest tropes in the Science Fiction canon. Brilliant mad scientist concocts a deadly artificial plague and prepares to unleash it on the world in a second Black Death. This ‘cull’ will prune back over-fertile humankind and so, perversely, save a planet-wrecking species ‘on the verge of collapse’ thanks to over-population. Or so we assume...

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