INFERNO, by Dan Brown. Doubleday, 461 pp., $29.95.
Eighty million readers can't be wrong, can they? If the reading public responds to Dan Brown's new tale of Renaissance art and 21st century bioterrorism (think "Night at the Museum" as told by Robin Cook) the way it responded to "The Da Vinci Code," this book will be just as infectious as the global plague at the center of its plot. The rare few of us who are immune, whose allergic reaction to the author's ham-handed and lead-footed prose style makes us resistant to his wild plotting, will only be able to watch in horror as our race is driven to its knees by literature's most fiendishly innocuous double agent.
If you loved or even liked "The Da Vinci Code," you have already made your peace with Brown's narrative style. You have no problem with huge chunks of encyclopedia research appearing unblushingly as dialogue, or better still, as inner monologue. "This building is seven hundred years older than Notre-Dame, Langdon thought." Those italics -- you love them, too. You are fine with the fact that Mr. Brown does not trust you to pick up on a single piece of information without its being repeated at least three times, once in italics. Finally, you have accepted the fact that his protagonist, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, has no more depth than can be created by innumerable references to his Harris tweed coat and his Mickey Mouse watch. Why do you think this handsome fella never gets more than a chaste kiss and a long hug from the hot supergenius women he runs around with? Because he has no personality!
If you like art, architecture and history, don't worry -- they're all back. So are the secret codes, magic numbers, bizarre cults and layers of lies and subterfuge, this time with a heavy dose of futuristic science thrown in. All the keys to the mystery are found in "The Inferno," Dante Alighieri's epic poem -- which happens to be the favorite of evil scientist Bertrand Zobrist, a man obsessed with the dangers posed by overpopulation. Only Langdon can read the signs and locate Zobrist's infernal, time-release solution in its subterranean location.
Will the magic numbers add up to 80 million again? I imagine so. And for the sourpusses like me who don't fall under the spell of this latest edition of "Fifty Shades of Religious Iconography" -- a funny joke Brown makes at his own expense; find it on page 263 -- Dante himself said it best:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.