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FICTION

Inferno

By Dan Brown

Doubleday

462 pages; $29.95

By Melinda Miller

News book ReVIEWER

Dan Brown has become an expert at packaging the ingredients of a good liberal arts education in accessible modern adventure novels, and for that he deserves all the credit in the world.

Readers have shown a real appetite for his mysteries wrapped in history and culture. The richer the background, the richer the reward.

Since you don’t get much richer than the birth of a major world religion, Brown may never top his “The Da Vinci Code,” which pasted murder, betrayal and international chase scenes on top of the quest for the Holy Grail and Gnostic versions of the life of Jesus that assert he had a wife among his disciples – and a child. Brown’s pop culture masterwork was an almost perfect combination of things people had heard of – “The Last Supper,” the Louvre, Isaac Newton – and less familiar concepts and ideas – Opus Dei, Knights Templar, the Fibonacci Sequence, all wrapped in thousands of years of worship and treachery.

Brown’s best achievement is his creation of “symbologist” Robert Langdon, a brilliant Harvard professor who has used his oceans of research and vivid gift for recollection to break open not only Da Vinci’s code, but also the secrets of the Freemasons and of the Vatican in “The Lost Symbol” and “Angels and Demons.”

So, when Brown begins his latest novel, “Inferno,” with Robert Langdon waking up in a hospital room in Florence and suffering from amnesia, we know our hero is in for a whole new kind of trouble. The problem is, this adventure never stops feeling like a contrivance designed by a successful author who has to “dumb down” his fictional expert in order to nudge the rest of a rather weak story over the line from unbelievable to the merely ridiculous.

Langdon doesn’t know how he got to Florence or why he is there, and for quite a while, neither do readers. Almost as soon as Langdon awakens in the strange bed, his life is threatened by a leather-clad, gun-toting assassin and he is on the run, aided by a cute young doctor with a blonde ponytail and an IQ of 280. Her name is Sienna Brooks, and she is described as “tall and lissome,” with a “willowy elegance,” and various other attractive adjectives. Her commitment to her patient, though, is never clear.

And thus the chase begins.

Through the haze of pharmaceuticals, Langdon is plagued by a disturbing vision of a lovely, older women with long gray curls urging him to “Seek and ye shall find.” In the vision, she stands in the depths of something like Dante’s Hell, surrounded by writhing bodies and screams of the suffering in a blood-red river of fire.

Who is she? What does she want from him? And why is someone trying to kill him?

Though Brown’s Langdon has been down this road before, he is out of his element without his memory. Meanwhile, the number of black-clad people in pursuit of him multiplies, and he and Sienna must find ever more Byzantine ways to elude them. The only way to stay alive, Langdon believes, is to solve the mystery of the gray-haired woman.

The codes soon start appearing – first in an object Langdon has found sewn into his jacket, and then all around Florence in places associated with the 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri.

Unlike Da Vinci in the book bearing his name, the “real” Dante has nothing to do with the challenge facing Langdon here. Instead, he is dealing with (another) brilliant scientist who was a fan of the poet’s greatest work, particularly the “Inferno” section of “The Divine Comedy,” and uses references from it to lead his enemies on a wild race through northern Italy.

While Langdon works his symbolic magic, Brown bats the reader from issues of overpopulation, to the World Health Organization and to a mysterious “fixer” on a yacht in the Mediterranean.

The best surprises come when Langdon’s present starts running into his recent, forgotten past, which includes some surprisingly larcenous activity. It’s much more clever and fun than what the book’s evil-doers are up to.

On the down side, where Brown’s other books took readers behind the scenes of real and historic secret societies – and we will count the Vatican as one of those – “Inferno” instead takes us behind the woodwork of well-known architectural treasures, and it is all, well, pretty musty. Tunnels and hidden doorways and secret exits simply don’t have the intrigue of actual characters plotting actual crimes against humanity, or at least against art.

As the narrow escapes mount up, and the repetitive cryptic clues involving Dante, hell and the Black Plague unravel, Brown brings his action to a screeching halt all too often with what amounts to a sightseeing guide for Florence, Venice and Istanbul.

Like a breathless tour guide, he peppers his prose with irrelevant minutiae that don’t even pretend to be part of the story, e.g. “The spectacular Renaissance-style palace had been part of the Venetian landscape since the sixteenth century. Once a private mansion, it was now a black-tie gaming hall that was famous for being the site at which, in 1883, composer Richard Wagner had collapsed dead of a heart attack shortly after composing his opera ‘Parsifal.' ”

Let’s point out that Wagner has nothing to do with Dante, and no one in the book is going to this casino, they just pass it in a boat.

The expository digressions are so frequent and random they don’t even rise to the level of red herrings – they take us nowhere that we couldn’t get to more easily with a Rick Steves audio guide. It may be an unintentionally good thing about Brown’s writing that much of this is easily skimmed over. He is a big fan of italicizing and repeating, and repeating again, all his key points, so if you don’t get it the first time, there will be more chances later.

The unintentionally not so good thing is how “Inferno” wraps up. While Brown pulls off the solution to “big question” – will Langdon solve the riddles in time to save the world? – in a provocative way, the rest of the plot threads – the amnesia, the chase and the main characters – are pulled together with so many knots and patches it’s something of a mess.

Let’s put it this way – if you didn’t like it all those years ago when Pam found Bobby in the shower and the entire previous season of “Dallas” was erased as “just a dream,” “Inferno” might also have you calling for rewrite.

Melinda Miller is a News reporter and The News’ monthly reviewer of crime and intrigue novels.