Cliches proves a guilty pleasure
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.