When a writer is as absurdly popular as American Dan Brown, it is inevitable that many critics will hate him.
Indeed, for Brown's novels, the sneer is the default critical response, whether for his latest, Inferno, or the three other entries in the adventures of "symbologist" and detective Robert Langdon, including Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol.
There is some justification.
Brown's plots tend to be rigidly formulaic: Langdon and an attractive female accomplice race against time to find/uncover a McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock's term for an object that propels story action) by interpreting messages found in miscellaneous antiquities. Rinse and repeat.
Also, Brown's writing style is so -- unstylish. Is there a single line in a Dan Brown novel worthy of a book of quotations? Doubtful.
Finally, Brown tends to anger a predictable percentage of the population with his broadsides against the Catholic Church, his bete noire of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. (In Inferno, the church only gets a passing slap for its policy of condemning birth control in Third World countries.)
All that said, Inferno remains a compelling summer read. It puts Langdon and a sexy-brilliant doctor, Sienna Brooks, on an international hunt for the title object, which, as we understand it, is a bag full of plague virus just waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. The perpetrator is a genius scientist who commits suicide before Chapter 1 even begins.
How do they find it? Well, as it happens, the scientist was a big fan of Dante Alighieri, the author of The Divine Comedy, particularly with respect to Dante's baroque depiction of hell.
Langdon is an expert on all things, and of course this includes Dante. The double hunt is on. Langdon seeks Inferno through a series of gratuitous clues. And a small army of black-shirted paramilitary types seek Langdon.
Brown tries to shake things up a bit in an attempt to gently alter the formula. In Chapter 1, Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy, suffering from a convenient form of amnesia that has claimed the last 36 hours of his life.
Apparently the victim of an unsuccessful bullet trajectory, he finds himself on the run from a spike-haired female assassin with the lovely Dr. Brooks by his side.
When he discovers an ominously packaged mini photo projector sewn into his suit, Langdon not only has to interpret works of art connected to Dante, he must interpret the jumbled images and messages of his own traumatized brain.
The novel has more than one bit of elaborate misdirection, suggesting Brown has taken some latent inspiration from the more imaginative potboiler novelist William Goldman (Marathon Man), the master of the literary switcheroo.
That doesn't hurt. As it is, one can't fault Brown's peculiar gift for putting together a compelling read by shining a light on a segment of society that tends to reside in secret enclaves.
In this novel, that would be the "transhumanism" movement. At its best, it's about extending human intellectual and physical capacities in the face of an out-of-control population growth.
In its worst incarnation as dreamed up by Brown -- well, see the title.
Like the movie that will inevitably be made from it, Inferno plays on Brown's strengths: exotic locales, relentless action and obscure but colourful history.
As for its veracity, it's just pleasantly dubious, but not offensively so. And, really, some of Brown's more vociferous critics do need to be reminded that his titles generally reside in the fiction section.
Randall King is the Free Press movie critic.