But that would be too easy: Dan Brown’s “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond” problem

The Heat is a hilarious movie that doesn’t bother much with plausibility. Towards the end Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy track down the bad guys to a warehouse, kill a few of them, but then get captured by the #2 bad guy.  He could simply shoot them, of course, but he decides to tie them up and torture them first.  Oh, no!  The torture is about to begin when he is called upstairs to a meeting with the #1 bad guy.  So Sandra and Melissa get to exchange some snappy dialog, figure out how to untie themselves, and carry on with the plot.

This is a standard action movie sequence.  The hero doesn’t get killed as the climax approaches; he gets tied up.  My friend Craig Gardner calls this the “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond” moment.  The evil mastermind has Bond in his clutches, but his hubris makes him say something like: “I could kill you now, Mr. Bond.  But that would be too easy.  Instead, I will let you watch as I carry out my plan for world domination. And then you will die a slow, horrible death.”

The evil mastermind’s hubris always leads to his downfall in these movies, of course.  And in the meantime we get to see the hero extricate himself from a difficult situation just in the nick of time to save the world.

Dan Brown’s Inferno is an action novel that features a standard evil mastermind with plenty of hubris.  Stripped of its endless lessons about art and literature and history and geography, it’s a James Bond novel.  Except that Brown makes a lot of odd plotting decisions that, for me at least, screw up this basic plot structure completely and fundamentally ruin the novel.  Spoiler alert: don’t read on if you are going to care about this plot:

  • First and foremost, the entire plot is predicated on the evil mastermind’s hubris, not just the climactic scene where he decides to keep the hero alive.  Nothing that happens in the book has to happen, except that this guy decides to leave some clever clues behind, mainly because he can.  He could simply have carried out his evil plan without telling anyone.
  • Second, and almost as bad, all the hero’s running around trying to stop the evil plan doesn’t amount to anything whatsoever because the evil plan has already successfully taken place by the time the novel starts.  We just don’t find out until page 400 or so.  So the action is doubly pointless.  Robert Langdon has raced around Florence and Venice and Istanbul for absolutely no reason.
  • Next, the evil mastermind is dead by the time the plot starts.  So there is no opportunity for a climactic confrontation, and his explanations for what he is doing all take place in flashback.
  • Finally–and I find this deeply weird–Brown seems to agree with the evil mastermind.  Well, Brown seems to be saying, his methods may not have been the best, but his analysis of the overpopulation problem was accurate, and obviously something more needs to be done . . .   He never allows any of the good guys to offer a convincing rebuttal to that analysis, although surely one exists (I could do a better job than the good guys, frankly).

So we spend the novel rooting for Langdon to succeed, but ultimately we find out that he couldn’t have succeeded, and we probably wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed.  What a letdown.