Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I KNOW DAN BROWN'S INFERNO HAS BEEN OUT FOR NEARLY A YEAR, but I didn't take the time to read it until I mentioned I was heading to Istanbul on Facebook. One of my friends said she had always wanted to go there, especially after reading about the Basilica Cistern in Inferno.

I originally bought the e-book as a result of climbing on my moralistic high horse. Two new members of a writing group to which I belong took great delight in this disparaging review by Guardian writer, John Crace. I got huffy and said I thought it was beneath us to belittle another writer in such a way, even one as famous as Dan Brown. Big name authors are easy targets, and I wondered if professional envy wasn't at the bottom of it, or making fun was a way of easing a bruised ego, or camaraderie could be found through ridicule. Bottom line, I thought the review was a cheap and unwarranted shot. The group decided it was fine to criticize as long as we aired our reasons from both technical and esthetic points of view. So Inferno sat on my Kindle, and I didn't think about it again until my friend mentioned that part of it was set in Istanbul. I thought it might be a great way to kill a ten hour flight. I watched movies, instead. But later, I started to read the book.

Like anything, there is the good and the bad. Where Dan Brown excels is in his openings where he builds interest, dramatic tension, and a sense of urgency. Inferno hooked me in the first few chapters. Granted, Robert Langdon's amnesia was a bit clichéd, but I decided - I could be tolerant. I was willing to go with the cliché for the sake of the plot. It didn't take me long to become impatient with the blocks of travelogue narrative that crept in and took over. Maybe his fans like this about his books, but I don't.

There were other problems too, mostly with character, which others have pointed out. For most of the book, Sienna, Langdon's 208 IQ companion/sidekick doesn't act as if she's that bright. She asks lame questions, misses obvious conclusions, and knows much less about things than Robert does. She's the 'little woman' to his 'man', the eye candy in a wig, albeit, the wig is an attempt to step away from the stereotype. Brown also justifies her presence later in a classic red herring, but the main reason Sienna is there is to be a sounding board for Langdon. Without her, he'd be muttering to himself about Dante's death mask or about St. Mark's Clock Tower being featured in a Bond film, or Santa Lucia, Patron Saint of the Blind plucking out her eyes to avoid the lust of men. (And I have to admit, some of these intrusions are interesting. It may actually be that Dan Brown sees these expo dumps as a strength, when most writers see them as weaknesses.) Instead of woolgathering, Langdon (and Brown) should be focusing more on the action - the assassins, the cops, the pandemic that's about to kill half the world's population. A little exposition is fine, but too much is too much - just as things start to get interesting, Brown interrupts the action like an enthusiastic art-historian or tour guide bent on giving us a lecture.

Anyway, at about the time I first bought Inferno, there was a 'Which Writer Are You?' test showing up on Facebook, where you submit some of your own prose and it's compared to famous writers' work. A new writer friend of mine was delighted to learn his writing resembled Dan Brown's. New writers can't always discern the good from the bad. The thinking goes, if someone like Dan Brown is making millions, his writing must be something to emulate. In places, Brown does good work, but in many others, he gets in his own way.

I didn't have the heart to tell my friend writing like Dan Brown wasn't necessarily a compliment.

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