Teaching writing over the past few years, I have frequently found myself exploring, with roomfuls of students and prospective writers, the problem of Dan Brown – the frustrating contradiction at the heart of one of the world's most successful writers, the author of 2003's The Da Vinci Code, less a novel than a wholesale phenomenon.
The problem is this: Dan Brown just isn't a very good writer. At a level of mechanics and fundamentals – the stuff of introductory writing courses – Brown falls short, on a variety of levels. His characters are so poorly developed they rarely rise above the level of caricature. His dialogue is wooden, clunky and lacks even passing resemblance to realism. He passes off large, undigested chunks of background material as conversation. His novels are repetitive and mired in slogs of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. It's not that he willfully breaks the "rules." It's more like he doesn't realize that such rules exist.
But Dan Brown is also a master storyteller. There's a reason his novels have sold more than 200-million copies: Once you start reading them, you just can't stop, especially those featuring Harris Tweed-wearing, historical minutiae-spouting Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon.
Brown has mastered the high-stakes crypto-thriller with an unrelenting knack for reader manipulation. His postcard-length chapters, each ending on a cliff-hanger, virtually force a reader to say, "Okay, just one more" until it's close to dawn and the book is done. (The caveat to this is The Lost Symbol, Brown's last novel, which didn't even succeed as a compelling thrill-ride.)
Interestingly, this contradiction is much less acute in Brown's newest novel, Inferno, released Tuesday to massive sales and media coverage, for two reasons: Not only is he exploring new terrain (while still remaining in the world of unsolved historical mysteries and the wonders of art history), but he's becoming a better writer, to boot.
Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in a hospital room with no memory of how he's gotten there. "There," in this case, being Florence – the last thing Langdon remembers is being home in Massachusetts two days earlier. He doesn't remember how he got the gunshot wound marring his scalp, nor how the mysterious metal specimen tube, marked with a biohazard symbol, got into the secret pocket of his beloved Harris Tweed (which, two days earlier, didn't even have a secret pocket).
And he certainly doesn't remember the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding, punk-haired young woman who invades his hospital room, guns blazing, to finish the job she started the night before.
Langdon is saved by the quick thinking and actions of his doctor, Sienna Brooks. Will it come as any surprise that an attractive young woman with secrets of her own teams up with Langdon for this latest adventure? Of course it won't. Nor will it surprise you to learn that there's a mysterious, powerful, secretive, transnational organization involved, right?
But best to leave it there.
To describe anything beyond those opening scenes would be to rob the reader of a genuinely thrilling, engrossing and ultimately rewarding read. Forced into action to save his own life – and, it seems, the world – Langdon struggles to regain his memories while deciphering a series of cryptic clues that take him through the gardens, galleries, museums and secret passageways of Florence's Old City, filtered through the rubric of Dante's The Divine Comedy.
While the historical and artistic material is standard for Brown, and as well-handled as one might expect, Inferno's success is due, in large part, to the solid integration of contemporary elements. While the clues are mapped out via Dante's journey through Hell, this isn't another case of Langdon vying with forces and organizations rooted in the dusty past; his foe, this time, is au courant, rooted in cutting-edge genetics, trans-humanist philosophy and a countdown clock with realistic, and terrifying, implications.
Unlike the noetic science which felt out of place in The Lost Symbol, Brown handles this new contemporary material with such aplomb that Inferno reads, at times, like a Michael Crichton thriller (and I mean that as the highest of compliments).
This contemporary awareness extends beyond the main narrative: Inferno, surprisingly enough, has moments of genuine humour, with sly references to self-publishing and Fifty Shades of Grey, and a seemingly self-aware sense of just how ridiculous Langdon can sometimes appear. The leavening is a good thing, both as a valuable counterpoint to the seriousness of the main plot, and as a bit of a wink to the reader, a sense of Brown saying "We're both here for a good time; let's not take ourselves too seriously, shall we?
And that, really, is the best approach. Sure, one could pick apart Brown's technical limitations for hours, but sometimes you just want a book that will keep you reading, the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster in an air-conditioned theatre. Inferno is that book: thrilling and over the top, exotic and slightly daft, and satisfying to the very last word.