Cliches proves a guilty plea­sure

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

much at a time, but it is clear he is work­ing from a trusted tem­plate: Lang­don plus smart, pho­to­genic side­kick up against shad­owy or­gan­i­sa­tion (the Con­sor­tium) led by equally sin­is­ter head hon­cho (the provost), the thrill of the chase tem­pered by fre­quent dis­cus­sions (or di­gres­sions) on art, his­tory, lit­er­a­ture and re­li­gion. Throw in nu­mer­ous red her­rings and wrong turns, plus friends who dou­ble­cross and bad guys who are re­ally good, and you have a cock­tail for suc­cess for an ar­dent read­er­ship.

Brown has upped his ante with this novel. In An­gels & Demons (2000) the Vat­i­can was al­most nuked. The Lost Sym­bol (2009) un­veiled the US govern­ment as a sect of rabid Freema­sons. In­ferno’s bioter­ror­ism plot to stem civil­i­sa­tion’s de­scent into Dante’s rings of hell is au­da­cious but, ac­cord­ing to Brown, based on fact. As a re­sult, the rants of his doom­sayer lu­natic even­tu­ally come across as chill­ingly real, a shrilly au­then­tic clar­ion call ring­ing out amid oth­er­wise wooden dia­logue.

Brown’s ex­changes are uni­formly clicherid­den and rou­tinely punc­tu­ated with hys­ter­i­cal ex­cla­ma­tion and ques­tion marks. All nonAmer­i­can char­ac­ters speak like Amer­i­cans. All char­ac­ters, re­gard­less of na­tion­al­ity, come with laugh­able iden­tity tags: Brooks is ‘‘ the wil­lowy thirty-two-year-old’’, Lang­don ‘‘ the hand­some aca­demic’’, an as­sas­sin ‘‘ the spike­haired op­er­a­tive’’ (worst of all, a school has a ‘‘ min­i­mum-wage se­cu­rity guard’’).

And in keep­ing with all Lang­don’s ad­ven­tures, ex­po­si­tion rules, with the reader forcefed pot­ted his­to­ries of build­ings and cities, bi­ogra­phies of an­cient rulers, artists and re­li­gious lead­ers, and mini-sci­en­tific trea­tises. Only Dante trivia comes to us in care­fully ra­tioned tit­bits.

But it would be point­less to take Brown to task over his prose. High­light­ing his stylis­tic faults is like shoot­ing fish in a barrel. His fo­cus is on driv­ing the nar­ra­tive for­ward, pro­pel­ling the reader on. Those that buy him do so be­cause they want an en­thralling, low­main­te­nance yarn. De­trac­tors should look else­where. It is as sim­ple as that.

Rather than ar­raign Brown for any crimes against lit­er­a­ture, then, we should eval­u­ate him on the strength of his thriller. Does In­ferno thrill or de­liver low-wattage high jinks? Fans will love it. Those fence-sit­ters should grudg- in­gly ac­cept that its 400-plus pages fly by, aided in part by tight plot­ting and cliffhanger chap­ter end­ings.

All must brace them­selves for the fact that this jug­ger­naut will roll on and surely be­come one of the big­gest sell­ers of the year.

There has been much talk re­cently of tak­ing genre writ­ers more se­ri­ously. Con­sider nov­el­ists such as John le Carre and Stephen King, who have honed their craft and are now ex­perts in their field. It is fair to say Brown has per­fected his, and yet there is lit­tle chance of him trou­bling a Booker or Pulitzer longlist any time soon. We wince at his card­board char­ac­ters, their im­plau­si­ble shenani­gans and stilted con­ver­sa­tions.

In In­ferno, how­ever, we also read on, guiltily or oth­er­wise. ‘‘ If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconog­ra­phy, we can talk,’’ Lang­don’s edi­tor tells him at one point, ter­ri­fy­ing us with an im­age of a re­ally bad book. In­ferno is not hellish, nor is it mak­ing lofty claims to be any­thing other than it is: harm­less hokum, good clean fun.

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