I used to have it in for Dan Brown. Seriously, I didn’t like the guy and I hadn’t even read any of his books. While that is terribly unfair and hypocritical of me, it really wasn’t his books I was annoyed at—it was the hype.
Everyone knows The DaVinci Code. If you didn’t read the book, you heard the controversy, and if you didn’t hear the controversy you at least heard of the movie with Tom Hanks. It’s the middle part I took umbrage with. People were taking the thing way too seriously for a while. It was masterful marketing, right along the lines of putting out a YouTube video of Bigfoot while selling Bigfoot merchandise on Etsy and hoping nobody finds your Bigfoot suit in the closet. It all rubbed me the wrong way, and as a result I had a grudge against the author.
Eventually I did read his work and was surprised to learn that as a writer, I didn’t hate him at all. I didn’t love him, mind you. His writing style is efficient but without flare, and he overuses adverbs like crazy at times. But he’s a decent storyteller and manages to sweep you into the world of art history through his adventures. He’s not unlike Michael Crichton in this regard, using his story as a vehicle for giving you a guided tour of academic points of interest.
Stephen King once described himself as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” and I think to a similar degree the same can be said of Dan Brown. When you think about it, that’s only an insult if you have pretensions. Heck, I aspire to reach Big Mac status someday!
Inferno is Brown’s fourth Robert Langdon book, and they each tend to follow a similar pattern. One the one hand there is the scavenger hunt like plot—Langdon is an expert in symbology at Harvard and the mysteries always involve symbolism and art history, one clue leading to another to another, giving you a tour of whatever part of the world he happens to be in along the way.
Another common factor is the twist—it seems to establish a solid groundwork early on of what is really going on, making you feel like it’s a straight up race to the finish. But as you get closer to the third act, you always discover the truth isn’t what you thought it was at all.
The other major commonality between the Langdon books is what can only be called an over-the-top climax of consequence. In Angels & Demons an anti-matter bomb (no joke) is involved, in The DaVinci Code we learn that Jesus married and has a bloodline, The Lost Symbol involves a massive Freemason conspiracy (but not the kind you’re thinking of). Inferno is no different, ostensibly focused on stopping a plague that could decimate the entire planet, instigated by a madman obsessed with Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
What makes this story different from the other three is how it starts out. Normally Langdon is approached to help with a mystery, but in this case we start with him in a hospital with a head injury, no memory of how he got there, and an assassin on his tail. In a sense we’re joining him after he’s already gotten halfway through the mystery, only to be forced back to square one.
Like Michael Crichton, Brown’s characters aren’t the most fleshed out of characters. Even after four novels, Robert Langdon’s primary characteristics are that he’s a puzzle solver and history buff. Aside from that he has few defining characteristics—he wears a vintage Mickey Mouse watch, a turtleneck sweater and tweed jacket, he’s a strong swimmer, and he has severe claustrophobia.
But again, like Crichton, it’s not the characters that keep us hooked and focused on the story. It’s the journey of information you follow during his scavenger hunt. In this case the story takes us through the streets of Florence and Istanbul, being given a guided tour of the cities and its artworks while being chased by assassins and shadowy agencies. This is Brown’s element, and he does a great job of making these things compelling—though due to his track record in The DaVinci Code, I am always left wondering how many interesting factoids he brings up are just BS.
Brown uses very short chapters, much shorter than most books, which feels like an odd choice. I can’t decide if having a hundred-plus chapters in a novel is meant to make the book feel bigger, or accommodate people who can only read for brief periods of time. Regardless, it’s not off-putting and does have a way of keeping the pace up, especially towards the end.
Ultimately the thing to remember about Brown is that he’s a structure-based storyteller, though not nearly as thorough on his research as someone like Michael Crichton. His first Langdon book was littered with inaccuracies, though I’m sure he takes far more care now.
But as a storyteller, he’s one that any prospective Game Master can appreciate. He can show you how to integrate real life history into elaborate puzzles, inventive ways for people to encode or decode information, and how to throw in plot twists that change everything, yet still make sense looking back. In those regards, he’s worth checking out. Just don’t cite him on any research papers.
Originally Published in KODT #225