A review of Inferno, by Dan Brown
@@@ (3 out of 5)
So, today’s subject is Dan Brown.
What can you say about a man who has sold more than 200 million copies of just six novels? Clearly, the guy has got something going for him. And whatever else you might say about The Da Vinci Code and its successors in the Robert Langdon series, lots of people read them.
Far be it from me to advance some psychosexual explanation for this surprising phenomenon. The numbers don’t lie. I can only wonder why.
OK, admittedly, I’ve read all those Dan Brown novels. Yes, I admit it. And I even found the suspense in the first couple of them to be compelling. Brown’s early novels — Digital Fortress and Deception Point — were fascinating to me. And I couldn’t wait to get to the end of The Da Vinci Code because the historical mystery was brilliant and the suspense was excruciating.
Inferno, not so much. Although there were many surprises in store for me in the book’s final chapters, I’d already figured out some of the fast ones Brown was going to pull as he thundered toward the climax. Because, often enough, it’s possible to foresee the plotline based not on what an author writes as on what he doesn’t write. That sometimes smacks of manipulation, which invariably makes me uncomfortable.
Now, just in case you want to know what Inferno is about, listen up: Robert Langdon finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence with a raging headache and a case of short-term amnesia. He can’t remember a thing about the past three days, and he doesn’t have a clue why the back of his head is bandaged or how or why he got to Florence. Sienna Brooks, his physician — a lovely young blonde woman, of course! Hollywood must be appeased — tells him he’s been shot in the head. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a shadowy character who runs a mysterious and powerful global organization from his headquarters on a massive converted yacht anchored somewhere in the Adriatic. He appears to be mixed up in Langdon’s misadventure in some way, but it’s clear we won’t figure out how until we’ve read further in the book. Pretty soon another mysterious character — a spike-haired woman in black leather, somewhat resembling Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo — appears and starts shooting up the hospital, killing one of the doctors. Langdon and Brooks flee to her nearby flat, where . . . well, the plot thickens there. You get the point, right?
I’ll say this much for Brown: his writing seems to have improved a bit since Angels & Demons, and the man does do his research. Dante Alighieri, whose work is the centerpiece of this novel, emerges from the pages of Inferno as a living force in Italy and among scholars the world over. And, as usual in his later, blockbuster career, Brown presents himself in the mode of docent at an art museum, pointing out one priceless cultural treasure after another as the action shifts from Florence to Venice to Istanbul.
You’ll love this book if you like that sort of thing — a travelogue for art aficionados dressed up as a novel. For my money, though, Inferno was too predictable (knowing Langdon from his previous outings), the art commentary was boring, and Brown’s treatment of overpopulation — another theme that figures prominently in the book — was downright preachy. All in all, I found Inferno just a fairly good read. Caveat emptor.
The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012
1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.
2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.
3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.
4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.
5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.
6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.
7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.
8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer
The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.
9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.
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