Readers, rejoice! All the elements Dan Brown used to such dramatic effect in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol are in full flower in his newest Robert Langdon thriller: impending global chaos and a frantic, day-long chase to avert it, a fanatically resourceful adversary, a beautiful and brainy companion and a pursuit route through some of the world’s most breathtaking architectural monuments. Hovering over the action is a menacing, ill-defined organization blandly called “the Consortium.” The enduring mystery here is why Langdon, who’s always on the run, hasn’t long since traded in his treasured Somerset loafers for a pair of Nikes.

Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy, and being told he’s just suffered a bullet wound to the head. Since his last memory is of walking across the campus at Harvard, where he’s a professor of symbology, this news comes as something of a shock. His attending physician introduces herself as Sienna Brooks. But before she can walk him through the events leading up to his present predicament, a spike-haired, black-clad woman assassin invades the hospital, apparently intent on finishing Langdon off. This launches Langdon and Brooks on a flight that will take them through the swankier museums and churches of Florence, Venice and Istanbul before the day is through. Early on, Langdon discovers he’s being chased because he may be able to discover the grand designs of renegade biochemist Bertrand Zobrist, who thinks the only way to save the world from overpopulation is by depopulating it with a plague.

The enduring mystery here is why Langdon, who’s always on the run, hasn’t long since traded in his treasured Somerset loafers for a pair of Nikes.

Even good-hearted Sienna seems swayed by Zobrist’s outlook. “Robert,” she tells him, “speaking from a purely scientific viewpoint—all logic, no heart—I can tell you without a doubt that without some kind of drastic change, the end of our species is coming. And it’s coming fast. It won’t be fire, brimstone, apocalypse, or nuclear war . . . it will be total collapse due to the number of people on the planet. The mathematics is indisputable.” So is Sienna really his friend or foe? Much of the appeal of Brown’s tale comes from never quite knowing where each character’s allegiance lies.

Zobrist, who is dead before Langdon enters the picture, leaves clues to his destructive intent by dropping references to Dante’s multilayered Hell, as described in the “Inferno” section of his Divine Comedy. Like Zobrist, Langdon is a Dante scholar and perhaps the one person who can decipher these clues before the plague is launched. Thus he is caught between the minions of the World Health Organization, which is determined to abort Zobrist’s plans, and those of the Consortium, which is just as resolute in ensuring those plans are carried out.

Although the general tone of the book is apocalyptic, Brown isn’t averse to having some fun at his own expense. At one point, Langdon phones his editor in New York at 4:28 in the morning to plea for the use of a corporate jet. “If you want to write Fifty Shades of Iconography,” his dyspeptic editor grumbles, “we can talk.” But Langdon pushes on, hoping to gain traction by citing his authorial integrity: “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” he persists. “Other than missing your last deadline by three years?” the editor muses peevishly before finally giving in.

Beyond providing readers the excitement of the chase and incidental lessons in art history, Brown also deserves credit for highlighting the very real problem of an increasing population vying for rapidly dwindling resources. Maybe it’s time for Langdon to turn activist.

Edward Morris writes from Nashville, and interviewed Dan Brown before he was famous.

 

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