For some reason, I feel an inclination to term Dan Brown's books "guilty pleasures," but such a label would be incredibly misleading and inappropriate. For example, I feel no guilt whatsoever in saying that I loved The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and I am convinced that Brown is a genius at creating puzzles, while at the same time writing thrilling, excellently paced stories that both inform and entertain. Actually, I think most of the "guilty pleasure" feeling is actually a side effect of the two films based on these novels. The books are, of course, action-packed themselves, so it makes sense that a blockbuster movie would want to capitalize on specific action sequences. As is often the case, the images of a filmic adaptation can sometimes eclipse those described in a book, and while I still recall many of the paintings, architecture, and history laid out in The Da Vinci Code, the title also conjures up an image of Tom Hanks with a gun. In fact, Barnes and Noble's description of Inferno calls his three latest books "international blockbusters" rather than "international bestsellers," which I find to be an important semantic distinction in terms of the way these books are perceived. In the minds of many people, blockbusters are popcorn action movies, typically viewed as "low" culture. I'm probably reading way too far into this, but all of these associations make it all too easy to form an ill impression of a book before even opening it.
However, the first hundred pages of Inferno seem to, oddly, confirm this impression. I will attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible: the beginning of the novel sees Robert Langdon waking up in a hospital with amnesia (at some point he expresses concern over the whereabouts of his precious Harris Tweed and Mickey Mouse watch) where he meets the blonde doctor who will serve as Langdon's partner in crime/romantic interest (female characters aren't always Brown's strong suit). A leather-clad biker chick shows up at the hospital with a gun to murder Langdon, but he and the doctor Sienna Brooks manage to escape, and a few chapters later find themselves in a high-speed motorcycle chase. Suffice it to say, the cliches abound in the first hundred pages, and I had to take a break.
I'm really glad I didn't stop there, though. Looking back on the beginning of Inferno, it seems to me that Brown was clearly aware of those cliches, and they were all intentional. Playing off of the Tom-Hanks-with-a-gun imagery, Brown seems to give readers exactly what they expect, almost lulling them into a sense of knowing. This is the kind of cinematic action we're so used to, it's become dull. Yet this is what allows Brown's twists to be even more shocking; he sacrifices the beginning for the quality and surprise of the ending.
But so far, I have only taken into account one level of storytelling. Inferno--and all of the Robert Langdon books--is not really about car chases and explosions (not to say that those parts are by definition passé): it's about a deep appreciation for and desire to understand the work of prolific authors and artists throughout history, and making thematic connections that transcend the novel itself. These connections are not only between past and present, but are also between art and science. Inferno does this in a similar way to Angels and Demons, and it is clear that Brown likes exploring such different subjects in unison and examining possible societal implications. For this reason, I find reviews terming Brown's books "religious thrillers" misleading and ambiguous, because this label, too, leaves out important subject matter that makes these stories so complex.
At times Inferno reads more like a guide book than a novel, and at others it feels like Brown invents situations for the sole purpose of bringing up digressive information that isn't related to the plot (in other words, finding opportunities to insert as many fun facts as possible). But this is, after all, Brown's singular style of writing, and every corny moment is matched by one of intelligence, moral importance, or profound questioning. Despite its flaws, Inferno is a reminder to read skillfully and passionately, to see beneath the surface and between the lines.