Sherlock Holmes or Robert Langdon?

I purchased Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, for an airplane flight and got around to reading it a few weeks later. The Wall Street Journal’s reviewer, featured on the back cover, called Brown “the master of the intellectual cliffhanger.” Excuse me, I always thought that accolade was reserved for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels.

I wrote a post several years ago – September 17, 2009 to be exact – about the Sherlock Holmes stories, discussing Doyle’s choice of a narrator. Departing from the nineteenth century convention of the omniscient narrator, the stories are narrated by Dr. Watson, Holmes’s assistant, representing the reader who is baffled by Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction. This approach was also used by Umberto Eco in his great 1980 detective novel The Name of the Rose. The narrator is Adso of Melk, the novice assistant to the great mediaeval detective William of Baskerville, a choice of name that signifies Eco’s homage to Doyle.

This led me to think about the nature of Brown’s story and his choice of a narrator. In Inferno, Brown’s long-term protagonist Robert Langdon attempts to prevent malefactor Bertrand Zobrist from unleashing an airborne virus that will render one third of humanity infertile, thereby dramatically reducing the world’s population. Langdon, as Brown’s readers know, is an art history professor at Harvard, blessed with eidetic (photographic) memory. Zobrist, who implausibly shares a surname with a talented and deeply religious professional baseball player, is a standard fictional villain, driven to pursue a reasonable goal – reducing global resource use – by an inhuman(e) means.

Zobrist’s hubris comes in preparing for the world a coded message explaining his vile intentions. Langdon, with his vast classical knowledge of Florence’s streets, architecture, and art works, ultimately cracks Zobrist’s code. Langdon and Zobrist are both geniuses, albeit in different ways, the former a visual savant, the latter a leading-edge biogenetic scientist. There are lots of other really smart people in the novel: a genius actress-linguist-physician who appears at first to be helping Langdon; the brilliant head of the World Health Organization, mobilizing global health networks to combat the virus; and a mercenary event planner, who unwillingly facilitates Zobrist’s scheme.

In the Sherlock Holmes novels and in The Name of the Rose, the best choice of narrator is the assistant to the master of deduction. In Inferno there are so many geniuses in conflict with one another that Brown uses an omniscient narrator to help the reader understand the nature of their conflict. I find Robert Langdon much less compelling than either Holmes or Baskerville. Holmes and Baskerville were exercising their highly-developed powers of observation and deduction to solve ill-defined problems. When, at the end of the stories, they explain what they did, we recognize the workings of their minds as similar in kind to our own but operating at a higher level. Thinking like Holmes or Baskerville is something worth aspiring to. For most of Inferno, Langdon was exercising his exceptional powers of recall, remembering places or works of art he had seen once. There is something much less intellectually satisfying about a protagonist who relies on eidetic memory, because that talent cannot be reproduced or emulated. As Brown kept eluding his pursuers because of his superior knowledge of the Florentine terrain, eventually I found the exercise simply boring.

To return to the title of this post, the choice is a no-brainer. I find Holmes a much more stimulating and inspiring genius than Langdon. Brown’s novel – spoiler alert here – ends with the airborne virus released, so presumably there will be a sequel in which Langdon and other geniuses figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle. Undoubtedly, it will sell millions of copies, just like Inferno. I won’t be buying one.


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