It didn’t take long for Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Inferno,” to reach the top of national bestsellers lists. And no wonder.
As he involved Leonardo da Vinci and the Illuminati in previous blockbusters, “Inferno” draws its plot from a section of Dante Alighieri’s own 14th century blockbuster, “The Divine Comedy.”
Brown brings back his favorite professor of symbology, Robert Langdon, to unwrap the package of clues associated with Dante’s work in order to solve the mystery. Among “Inferno’s” many other characters, the principal one – and the antagonist – is recently dead.
That’s Bertrand Zobrist, a Swiss national who was a billionaire because he also was a genius in the field of biochemistry and acquired a slew of patents.
He also was a Dante aficionado who, after helping to save lives, came to believe that human population growth unchecked would lead to chaos, starvation, war, environmental disaster and misery on a par with the inferno Dante wrote of.
Zobrist eventually concluded that humanity’s only hope was to eliminate billions of people.
It’s a responsibility this twisted genius decided to shoulder himself when international agencies such as the World Health Organization were, in saving lives by providing vaccines and improving nutrition, accelerating the crisis. With the help of an international consortium of wealthy and powerful individuals who made and kept promises even when it was unwise, Zobrist spent a year developing his concoction.
It’s a formula that Langdon, the WHO and others are convinced is a plague that would reduce the population to what Zobrkst considered a sustainable level.
The morality of sacrificing some for the good of the rest is a fit subject for a philosophical discussion as well as a pretty good basis for a novel.
Zobrist was a formidable adversary.
Complicating Langdon’s efforts were the fact that he wakes up with a head wound in Florence not knowing how he got there. In no time, however, he is running from armed men but is assisted by Sienna Brooks, a medical doctor who tended to him and a is a genius in her own right.
Together, they flee from one of Florence’s great tourist attractions to another – the Baptistery adjacent to Florence’s famous cathedral, the Duomo; through the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, across the Arno River to the Palazzo Vecchi, which, not coincidentally, holds Dante’s death mask.
Langdon learns enough in Florence to realize that they have to hot-foot it to Venice. There, they get separated – and Langdon gets captured – but not before exploring St. Mark’s Basilica and learning that their quest will end in Istanbul. Captured, Langdon learns that the bad guys are really the good guys and that there’s a lot more to Sienna than he had believed.
He’s transported to a deluxe yacht where he meets the provost of the consortium as well as the director of the WHO, both of whom are gravely concerned about the possibility that a great plague is about to be unleashed on humanity.
That gives them just about enough time to visit the great Hagia Sophia and descend to Istanbul’s historic cisterns.
In “Inferno,” Brown showcases his mastery at creating and unraveling obscure clues in documents and works of art. But Langdon’s awakening with amnesia in Florence is contrived and unnecessary, and though the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio is fascinating, the chase scene there is ponderously long.
Brown probably deserves credit for not picking another fight with the Catholic Church. Otherwise, it’s fair to wonder whether in writing “Inferno,” he felt the need to top “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.”
If so, he tried too hard. “Inferno” has its moments and is a nice travelogue, but it’s sometimes tedious. It’s not bad but neither does it approach great.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor and a Manhattan resident.