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Unmasking Dan Brown

Since the publication of "The Da Vinci Code," book research for bestselling author Dan Brown has become an act of subterfuge and judicious disguise.

To write his new novel, "Inferno," which involves chase sequences and clue-deciphering set in Italy's basilicas, museums and tourist-clogged streets, Brown visited the country garbed like a tourist. During one trip to Florence, he sported a baseball cap and informal clothing to avoid being recognized, jotting fastidious notes and visiting the city's famed buildings in total secrecy. During another, he returned to Florence as himself, climbing Brunelleschi's Dome at the Cathedral of Florence, and listening intently as a tour guide described the architectural marvels and historical significance. "Inferno" readers will not find a single paragraph devoted to Brunelleschi's Dome, because that particular visit was a "red herring."

"Researching now is a bit of a double-edged sword, so I created this whole method of shrouding the plots in secrecy," Brown says, speaking from his home in New Hampshire. "I need to be careful about what I ask and where I go, because these guides will make a phone call and say, 'I was with the Dan Brown at this location, and he was asking about this. So I visit a lot of places I have no interest in, and ask a lot of misleading questions. I'll take copious notes very dramatically, so it looks like I'm interested. It's a cat-and-mouse game, but it's kind of fun, actually."

Brown will, of course, shed all disguises and pretense when he visits the 30th annual Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 17. He'll be appearing at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts as the writer whose thrillers have sold 200 million copies worldwide, and as a man who believes some deception is necessary when you're an author with universal name recognition.

Some of that popularity is pegged to Brown's prose style, which in "Inferno," as in his previous novels, reads like a Fodor's Travel guide on steroids: long passages of historical trivia compressed into short chapters; cinematic shootouts along traffic-choked avenues; his protagonist, the tweedy symbologist and art-history professor Robert Langdon, dashing through narrow, cobblestone-lined corridors; and picture-postcard descriptions, which include lines such as, "Originally, the bridge had been home to Florence's vast, open-air meat market, but the butchers were banished in 1593."

"I think I've always written in a cinematic style. The books need to have a fast pace, for better or worse. I write the book I would want to read," Brown says. "I like books that teach — I've got to learn something on every single page — which is why I write about real-world problems and real-world history. Location is the most important character in a book, so if I have a chance to write a conversation between two characters, for example, I will make sure it's in the Vasari Corridor, and not in a Denny's. There are many ways to write a book set in Florence, and I just chose to write one where people aren't so much wandering the streets, staring at statues. They're sprinting through the streets and gathering tidbits."

"Inferno" follows Langdon, who wakes up in a Florence hospital bed with a minor gunshot wound and retrograde amnesia. Hot in pursuit is Vayentha, a female assassin with spiked white hair coming to murder Langdon, who escapes the hospital with a young doctor, Sienna Brooks. Later, the symbologist discovers a bread-crumb trail connecting Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" to a scientist with a God complex, whose sore spot happens to be the threat of human overpopulation.

"Dante is an endless fountain of inspiration and symbolism. You do online research, and you marvel at the endless Google hits on Dante. From Botticelli to William Blake, you'll see their version of Dante's 'Inferno,' " Brown says. "When I looked at Botticelli's 'Mappa dell'Inferno', which illustrates Dante's map of hell, I thought, 'Wow, these masses of starving bodies piled on top of each other look like the predictions of humanity's future if overpopulation remains unchecked. So then, I thought, 'What if Dante wasn't writing fiction so much as prophesy?' "

Researching overpopulation came from a place of passion, Brown says, just as growing up Catholic and later rejecting the faith sparked "The Da Vinci Code," a novel that depicts an alternative history of Jesus Christ.

"It's an issue I feel not only faces future generations, but my generation," he says. "I'm 49, and research says my life expectancy will be around 100. I'm not offering any realistic solutions, but I'm really just trying to raise awareness, and I feel like the book has done that."

Brown says he has been approached on book tours by readers curious about overpopulation, but he prefers to steer conversations like those back to book research and touring Italy, which he considers "the most fun" aspect of writing "Inferno."

"I grew up in a world of codes and treasure hunts, and I enjoy that aspect of learning," he says. "I was giving a talk once, and someone in the audience said, 'Hey, Robert Langdon must be you, because he can't visit all those secret passageways in Italy without you visiting them first.' Yes, but Robert is a lot smarter and more daring, and certainly cooler."

Dan Brown

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17

Where: Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami

Cost: $15

Contact: 305-237-3258 or

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