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So, he wrote The Da Vinci Code. What else can he do?


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. 


Filed under Disaster Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers

The Bellini Card, by Jason Goodwin

@@@ (3 out of 5)

It’s 1840. A eunuch in service to the Ottoman sultan is, improbably, an accomplished detective, a gifted hand-to-hand fighter, and even a lover of women (or, at least, one woman) in this fanciful but flawed mystery story. Dr. Watson to Yashim’s Sherlock Holmes is a Polish Count ejected from his lands by the Austrians in a recent partition of Poland, which is now, effectively, nonexistent. But Count Paderewski, appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, continues in office to keep the flag of Poland flying in the hearts and minds of his contemporaries.

As the action shifts from Istanbul to Venice, we meet a passel of equally unlikely Venetian characters. Included are a surpassingly beautiful Countess who is also a brilliant fencer; a masterful local police inspector; a chubby but beautiful young prostitute with, naturally, a . . . let’s just say “big heart”; a deaf mute idiot savant with the ability to paint like Michelangelo; and a three-century-old portrait by a brilliant artist of the Venetian Renaissance.

Somehow, all these characters come together in the course of The Bellini Card once Yashim (the eunuch) is ordered by the young sultan Abdulmecid to travel to Venice to secure the portrait. This book is the third in a series of mystery stories that focus on Yashim and life in the Ottoman Empire. Though the action is sometimes difficult to follow (much less to understand), the book is nonetheless a worthwhile read, if only because of Jason Goodwin’s obvious respect for historical accuracy and his evocative portraits of two of the world’s most fascinating cities in the 19th Century.

Although I can’t count The Bellini Card as giving me one of my most rewarding recent reading experiences, chances are good I’ll read the two novels that preceded it, anyway. I’m a sucker for historical fiction generally, and more so for mysteries set in exotic locales. If you like your crime stories to take you off the beaten path, you, too, will probably want to pick up The Bellini Card.

ISBN-10: 0312429355

ISBN-13: 978-0312429355

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Filed under Detective Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers