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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808

Author: Dan Brown

Publisher: Doubleday (New York). 461 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time Period: 2000s

Locale: Florence, Italy, and Istanbul, Turkey

In the mystery novel Inferno, a symbology expert and his allies follow a series of clues hidden in artistic works related to Dante's Inferno in an attempt to stop the release of a virus meant to solve the world's overpopulation crisis.

Dan Brown became one of the world's most successful authors after the publication of his 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, which sold millions of copies and became one of the best-selling novels of the decade. The Da Vinci Code is part of a series of books that follow the investigations of fictional Harvard University professor Robert Langdon, a specialist in religious iconography and symbolism who uses this knowledge to investigate secret societies and historical, quasi-religious mysteries. The popularity of Brown's novels is due in part the controversial nature of statements Brown has made regarding his books. In interviews and publicity statements about The Da Vinci Code, Brown claimed that nearly all of the historical information in the novel is true and that only the fictional character of Langdon had been invented to weave this factual historical information into an intriguing story. Supporters of Brown took him at his word, believing that The Da Vinci Code reveals secret truths about the Catholic Church and the alleged secret society known as the Priory of Zion. Meanwhile, scholars and theologians wrote articles, gave interviews, and produced books demonstrating the depth to which Brown's claims were largely erroneous. Critics and fans continue to debate whether Brown was purposefully disingenuous or merely mistaken about many of the facts he purported to reveal through his writing.

Brown's first book in the Robert Langdon series, Angels and Demons (2000), focuses on the secret society known as the Illuminati. The second novel in the series, The Da Vinci Code, explores the Priory of Zion and Opus Dei. The Lost Symbol (2009), the third book in the series, explores Freemasonry, which Brown alleges is another secret society. In Inferno: A Novel, Brown's hero struggles against a hidden consulting group, known as the Consortium, which is involved in a plot by a misguided genius bent on using bioterrorism to solve the world's overpopulation crisis. As is his custom, Brown's book begins with a note labeled "Fact" that claims that all of the artwork, science, and historical references in the novel are "real." Brown then goes on to state that the Consortium is based on an actual private organization with offices in seven countries, the name of which has been changed for the novel. Again, Brown has primed his fans and critics by alluding that he is using his fiction to explore reality. Nonetheless, claims to historicity in Inferno are not nearly as blatant, nor as controversial as in previous novels of the series.

At the opening of the novel, Langdon is suffering from amnesia and has been in a hospital for several days. He has no knowledge of what has happened to him or how he came to be injured. Realizing that he is in Florence, Italy, after seeing the Palazzo Vecchio out of the hospital window, Langdon is, in his own words, "stupefied." The situation becomes far more desperate when Langdon must quickly flee from the hospital to escape a female assassin, later revealed to be Vayentha, an agent of the Consortium. Vayentha's entrance to the story is striking. She arrives driving a BMW motorcycle, with hair "styled into spikes," and seeks out Langdon "with the intensity of a panther stalking its prey." Langdon is saved thanks to the intervention of Dr. Sienna Brooks, a doctor and writer who is both beautiful and brilliant. Brooks takes Langdon to her apartment where he discovers a small cylinder in his jacket marked "biohazard." After calling the US State Department to inform them of his location, Langdon is relieved until the mysterious spiky-haired assassin shows up at Brooks's apartment. He begins to believe that the United States government is trying to have him killed.

As his memory returns, Langdon has strange "visions" including, among other images, a mask with a beaked nose and green eyes that he recognizes as a "plague mask." Langdon explains that plague masks were used by doctors around the time of the bubonic plague of the 1300s and were designed to protect doctors from plague-inducing vapors. After further investigation of the mysterious cylinder, Brooks and Langdon discover that it has been outfitted with a miniature projector that produces an image of la mappa dell'Inferno ("map of Hell"), by fifteenth-century Italian artist Sandro Botticelli. Langdon surmises before being hospitalized that he was conducting an investigation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno, a section of the fourteenth-century epic poem the Divine Comedy, which inspired Botticelli's illustration. Brown gives readers a brief explanation of the poem to provide some historical background on the work's impact on Western culture. Dr. Brooks and Langdon recognize elements of Langdon's visions in the projected image, including a pair of legs emerging from the ground marked with the letter "R" and a figure that has been added to the original painting in this reproduction—a man wearing a beaked plague mask.

As Langdon and Brooks follow a series of clues inspired by Dante's Inferno, Brown incorporates several famous Florence landmarks, including the elevated Vasari Corridor and the Palazzo Vecchio, where Langdon goes to get a closer look at another famous painting, The Battle of Marciano by Giorgio Vasari. Alternating chapters bring readers into an organization known as the Consortium and introduce the Provost—a mysterious figure who leads the shadowy corporation. The Consortium offers an unusual service: helping clients "disappear" through fake identities, relocation, and other tactics. Readers then learn that the Consortium had been hiding a scientist and fanatic of Dante's literature (revealed to be Bertrand Zobrist) who killed himself by leaping from the Badi Tower after hiring the Consortium to help him hide his research. Now, the Consortium scrambles to achieve a dual purpose: fulfilling their contract with the now deceased client and ensuring that the company is not dragged into an investigation.

Best-selling author Dan Brown is known for his Robert Langdon series, particularly The Da Vinci Code (2003). The Da Vinci Code and its predecessor, Angels & Demons (2000), have been adapted into feature films. Brown's books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.

Over the course of the novel, Langdon and Brooks follow a set of clues in an attempt to figure out what happened to Langdon in the lead up to his amnesiac episode. Langdon discovers that the mystery involves a bioterrorist plot and teams up with the World Health Organization (WHO) to track down Zobrist's research. Brown develops themes characteristic of his previous novels, including the deciphering of clues in medieval artwork and architecture, mistaken and hidden identities, and global conspiracies developed by hidden organizations. Once again, Langdon is hunted by those who wish to keep their secrets hidden, but uses his considerable intellect to stay a step ahead of his pursuers. The book's exploration of hell and death has had some critics call Inferno Brown's "darkest" book to date. Nevertheless, while the underlying subject matter is dark, Brown keeps a rapid pace through most of the story.

While Brown's novels have become immensely popular with readers, many book critics have been less impressed by his technical skill as a writer, often calling attention to clumsy descriptions and poorly phrased dialogue. By contrast, a number of prominent critics consider Inferno—from a purely literary standpoint—one of Brown's strongest works to date. In his review for the Boston Globe, Chuck Leddy states that Inferno is a literary masterpiece in comparison to some of Brown's earlier books. Leddy praises Brown's research and the detail with which he describes Florence. Reviewer Monica Hesse for the Washington Post praises the book but observes in her review that Brown utilizes certain clichéd patterns that have become predictable. While Brown may have few new tricks up his sleeve, he has found new ways to integrate his typical themes and mechanisms into Inferno to keep it interesting.

Throughout the book, Brown uses meta-mysteries to deepen his readers' interest and to provide realms for avid fans to search for puzzles within the puzzles. Some sections contain word games that readers can try to unscramble, while there are also numerical puzzles that can be decoded. Readers almost immediately spotted a puzzle built into the book's publication date, which (when reversed) lists the first six digits of pi. The book cover itself contains a linguistic cipher, which can be decoded and translated to mean "seek and ye shall find." The numerical puzzles found in Inferno are partially based on the fact that Dante himself was a fan of numerology; this is reflected in the Divine Comedy, which he wrote according to a precise numerical formula. Immediately following the publication of Inferno, the plot of which was a guarded secret at Doubleday, a slew of blogs, articles, and books appeared, each aimed at decoding the hidden messages and references found within the novel.

While Inferno draws upon historical artistic and literary mysteries, the book is far less controversial than others in the Langdon series. In The Da Vinci Code, by comparison, Brown reinvented the history of the Catholic Church and the life of Jesus—contentious decisions that allowed readers to imagine that Brown was the revelator of a legitimate conspiratorial history. Here, Brown's primary revelation is that there may exist multinational corporations capable of helping to hide the activities of organizations and/or individuals who can alter the fate of humankind. In interviews, Brown has said that corporations of this kind do exist and that this is the factual basis of his "fact in fiction" approach to storytelling. The real issue that Brown investigates in the novel is overpopulation, a phenomenon that has been debated and analyzed by social scientists, demographers, and public officials. As one character in the novel notes, the statistics regarding population growth have "painted a chilling picture not of the distant future, but of the very near future." By exploring overpopulation, secretive international corporations, and the potential for global pandemic disease, Brown instills his novel with a sense of realistic peril. As readers follow Langdon through his story's twists and revelations, they are left wondering until the final pages whether his intellect and knowledge of history can help him find an answer to the puzzle of humanity's future.

Review Sources

  • Leddy, Chuck. Rev. of Inferno, by Dan Brown. Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, 27 May 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.
  • Maslin, Janet. "On a Scavenger Hunt to Save Most Humans." Rev. of Inferno, by Dan Brown. New York Times 13 May 2013: C1. Print.
  • Hesse, Monica. Rev. of Inferno, by Dan Brown. Washington Post. Washington Post, 14 May 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.
  • Horn, Theresa. Rev. of Inferno, by Dan Brown. Library Journal 1 Aug. 2013: 43. Print.

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