Dan Brown's new thriller takes its title from the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy. While that epic poem and its author's native Florence provide the novel with its geographic, aesthetic, and literary backdrop, a less-celebrated work bears equally upon the narrative's thread. Brown might just as well have titled his book The Principle of Population, in homage to early-nineteenth-century demographer Thomas Robert Malthus, whose polemical theories on world population spur the machinations of Brown's bad guy, Bertrand Zobrist. A kind of mad genetic scientist, Zobrist is hell-bent (quite literally) on curbing the planet's exponentially growing population. He hatches a plot to "cull" a large swathe of mankind through a planned pandemic: a kind of neo-medieval plague. Zobrist's penchant for poetry leads him to couch his exploits in a series of aesthetic and lyrical puzzles, all bound up with Dante's Circles of Hell and their historical representation. Luckily, Robert Langdon—Harvard's resident Professor of Symbology [sic]—is on hand in Florence, characteristically free from his full plate of academic responsibilities and high-profile appearances.
Brown likes to begin his books in media res, and to compelling effect. The reader is plunged into the thick of things, sweating and guessing alongside Langdon as the professor wakes up in a Florentine hospital suffering from amnesia, embroiled in a mess that involves hired assassins, the World Health Organization, and a cross-section of the city's literati. Like Brown's previous books, Inferno breathlessly traces the arc of a single day, this time, over the course of a hefty 480 pages. Even at this length, however, the book retains the punch of a slimmer whodunit. Inferno follows the basic patterns Brown established in Angels and Demons (2000) and the celebrated The Da Vinci Code (2003), mixing mystery, art and architectural history, and historical conspiracy theories. Set in Rome and Paris, respectively, Brown's previous novels followed Langdon as he took on detective work out of intellectual curiosity and a sense of moral obligation. This book follows suit, though by now, Brown's plotting can feel somewhat formulaic: The Da Vinci Code's police chief Bezu Fache cedes his place to Inferno's irascible Agent Brüder, while the wily cryptologist Sophie Neveu is replaced by Sienna Brooks, a brainy but troubled English doctor who first attends to Langdon in the hospital and quickly becomes his accomplice. A former child prodigy fluent in several languages and boasting an IQ of 208, Brooks just happens to have a lovely face and lithe figure. When we find her finding herself "strangely attracted to the American professor" by page 54, the novel appears fated to follow a predictable course.
Given Brown's keen sense for plot twists, it fortunately does not. Perhaps more frustratingly predictable, however, is the author's recourse to pedantic passages explaining a new setting or site. In these instances, lively writing quickly downshifts to City Guide mode; whole paragraphs read like sound bites transcribed from a walking tour audio guide, or, as a biting satire in the Guardian contended, fragments of Wikipedia entries. "The gilded doors had been quietly swapped out for exact replicas," the narrator duly notes of Florence's Baptistry. "The real horses of Saint Marks are kept inside for safety and preservation," Langdon intones ceremoniously before the façade of Venice's basilica. This omniscience can strain credulity. In addition to being endowed with an eidetic memory and preternatural flair for riddles, the professor possesses a seemingly unsurpassed erutidion—he happens to be an expert not only on the Florentine Renaissance and Venetian and Islamic art, but on nearly any topic that the occasion demands.
Brown brings Dante to bear in fits and starts, invoking the poet in ways that at first feel awkward but gain momentum as the plot thickens and Zobrist's Inferno-themed machinations take shape. Zobrist's coded clues and arcane ruses draw upon tropes intrinsic to Dante's own text—a medieval thriller in its own right, shot through with all manner of numerological symbolism. More concretely, the invocation of landmarks associated with Dante's biography (Florence's Santa Margherita dei Cerchi church, for example), and works of art based upon his writing (from Botticelli to Gustave Doré), lend the narrative a rich visual dimension which literary inspiration alone might have failed to conjure up.
Ultimately, Brown's uses of Dante amount to a pleasurable and intelligent narrative device, one that sheds less on the original Inferno than on our own projections onto its millennial verse. What Brown loses in literary innovation here, he gains in contemporary relevance. More than the author's previous work, the novel grinds the axe of its subtext, in this case that of overpopulation and its inexorable consequences. His villain's genius lays somewhere beyond good and evil; for all of his callousness, his planned, modern-day plague spurs some sincere reflection. As a latter-day, pop-Virgil, Brown obliges Langdon—and the reader alongside him—to weigh the prospects of mass annihilation or the earth's slow, tortuous suffocation. If that dilemma feels at times a tad overwrought, its moral imperative—and the mystery that is its vehicle—are worth the read.