There are, it seems, two ways to read Dan Brown. His status as the planet's most dastardly thriller writer compels the reader on a headlong quest after clues and revelations. Inferno's codes are largely inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. Symbologist extraordinaire Robert Langdon chases eugenicist Bertrand Zobrist through Florence armed only with a slender genius (Sienna Brooks).
If, however, you subscribe to Brown's reputation as the worst prose stylist in the universe you will pore over sentences with the same care that Christopher Ricks reserves for Milton. Stylistic innovations include: a deluge of mixed metaphors ("A searing hot pain tore into his arm"); Brown's obsession with the word "ping"; an ability to make every character sound exactly the same; and enough adjectives and adverbs to drive Sesame Street mad. Almost as annoying are Brown's know-it-all's conflation of genius and factual knowledge and Langdon's ever-convenient eidetic memory.
So, which is Inferno: angel or demon? Initially, I assumed that Brown's infernal prose would win. Lines like "his thin hospital johnny was scarcely long enough to cover his six foot frame" simply destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to buy Inferno's end-of-the-world melodrama. Likewise, if Dante really did embed intricate linguistic clues into the Commedia, wouldn't these be in Italian?
Yet, as I continued to turn the pages almost against my will, I wondered whether these crimes against English prose might actually be a brilliant literary masterstroke. Brown's fusion of gothic hyperbole with a pedant's tour-guide deliberately restrains the imagination through its awkward awfulness. Once the plot finally kicks in, you are suddenly released like a stone from a blockbusting catapult. On page 269, there is even a decent joke. Kinder feelings blossom as Inferno moves with enhanced feelings of velocity, excitement and fun.
Am I taking Inferno too seriously, or not seriously enough? Its twisty pleasures are an advance on The Da Vinci Code. Sadly, Dante could have used Brown's cloth-eared prose to torture sinners in the ninth circle of hell. (Beware: a code is hidden in the opening four paragraphs. Solve it and save the world – or at least £20).
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