Hell is other people

Inferno by Dan Brown, Bantam, RRP£20/Doubleday RRP$29.95, 480 pages

The plot of Inferno, the new blockbuster thriller from Dan Brown, has nothing to do with Dante, but you often feel the author wishing that it did. There are, for instance, vital clues written on the back of Dante Alighieri’s death-mask in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence. We find that the book’s arch-villain is – or rather was, for he dies on page one – obsessed with Dante. And when the whole nonsensical story is over, we see our hero, Professor Robert Langdon, the art historian and symbologist from Harvard who has appeared in three previous Brown books, reading a paperback of The Divine Comedy: “Dante’s poem, Langdon was now reminded, was not so much about the misery of hell as it was about the power of the human spirit to endure any challenge, no matter how daunting.”

Inferno reads less like a novel than a “treatment” for a thriller film. We first meet Langdon when he wakes up with amnesia, thinking he is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and apparently with a gunshot-wound to his head. Instead he finds he is, conveniently, in Florence (“one of his favorite destinations in all of Europe”). A woman in black leather has been chasing him, gun in hand. Luckily for Langdon, the doctor who is on his case – having evacuated him from hospital in a high-speed car chase and hidden him in her apartment – then changes out of her medical clothes. Dr Sienna Brooks “was transformed – a natural beauty – having changed into formfitting jeans and a cream-colored sweater”. What a stroke of luck; she could so easily have turned out to be a bit dumpy or plain. Even better luck that the next 200 pages consist of a chase through Florence, moving on to Venice and finally Istanbul.

There is a great deal of scientific gobbledegook about “germ-line manipulation”; and there is also some tourist-level art history. Sometimes you wonder where the author got it from, and sometimes he is laid-back enough to admit it: “According to the Web site, the Horses of St Mark’s were so beautiful they had become ‘history’s most frequently stolen works of art’”. To help unsophisticated readers, Brown writes like a tour guide, ever anxious to stress the fame of the places and art treasures we glimpse along the way. The prof and his doctor race past “Florence’s famed Cathedral”, and Vasari’s “famed Studiolo”, not forgetting the “world-famous Uffizi Gallery”.

On to Venice where, in the course of avoiding gunfire and kidnap, our hero has time to notice the “Ponte dei Sospiri ... A famous Venetian Bridge” before reaching “St Mark’s Square, Venice’s most populated area”.

All this rushing around is a bid to foil the posthumous plans of a mad scientist called Bertrand Zobrist, the villain who killed himself at the start of the book. Obsessed by the overpopulation of the world, he’s hidden a slowly dissolving container of what could well be a deadly virus. On a particular day – the penultimate day of our story – the deadly whatever-it-is will be released into the atmosphere. Zobrist believed that only after the Black Death had the human race enjoyed the Renaissance and the present generation needs some such Malthusian culling.

Brown gives us some of his signature plot twists – people you thought were baddies turn out to be harmless, and vice versa. The story is a sort of paper-chase, in which the professor hurtles from one famous spot to the next, picking up clues left by the dead maniac. It is easy to see why a maniac might want to cull the population of the world, but why he should do so in the form of this childish game? That’s one thing that is never explained.

AN Wilson is author of ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.