This one was the disappointment of the year (but then again, it’s only March). I bought Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code at Dublin airport at the recommendation of several friends. This is a NYT #1 bestseller, and I was looking forward to a complex and learned thriller with cryptography and history figuring prominently – kind of a combination of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Unberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, maybe with intertwingled fact and fiction like Shakespeare in Love.
That was not to be. The book is a clunker, and once you start noticing it there is no way back.
The premise is great and the plot at least starts out promising, but the writing, particularly the exposition, is breathless and shallow – Paris is described barely better than Marlo Morgan describes Australia. The book features a Harvard professor of “Religious Symbology” trying to make sense of the death of a Louvre curator – who turns out to be the grandmaster of a secret society guarding the 2000-year old secret of the Holy Grail. If released, this secret will bring down the Catholic church, so the curator is killed by a conveniently available self-flagellating albino monk on orders from the Opus Dei. Of course, the men are handsome, the women beautiful, and the obligatory nod to new age and political correctness is included in the form of a cryptographer heroine and a half-baked “legend of the goddess” running theme.
Worst, however, is the writing. The shallowness of the descriptions is nothing short of offending. For instance, the office of the deceased curator is described, seen through the professors’ eyes, as having “Old Master” paintings on the wall. This same professor is supposedly so proficient in the arts that he can recognize the “famous parquet floor” of Louvre’s Grand Galerie from a Polaroid (Polaroid? In this day and age?) when pulled out of bed at 2am. Would such as person describe the paintings by anything less that the artist’ name?
Brown wallows in cheap suspense tactics – such as having the characters look at something, express their horror, and then move on without telling the reader what the horror is. This makes the book feel like a cable newscast, where the anchors are forever saying “next, ….” and you know you have to suffer through three commercial breaks and trivial news items before you come to the meat, which by then has become stale since you have guessed it anyway.
Brown borrows plot construction from Robert Ludlum (with characters routinely outdriving Parisian police in their two-seater Smart Car, essentially a mailbox on wheels) and jetting around Europe, displaying deep knowledge of obscure history but intermittent denseness when it comes to solving riddles. He borrows writing techniques (as well as self-promotion tactics) from Tom Clancy, with spurious italication meant to illustrate the main persons conversations with himself, as well as attempts at describing the proficiency of the heroes and villains by which weapons and cars they use, no technical detail forgotten.
In short, this is less a thriller than a movie script. As such, it has its good points – smart (or, at least, very filmable) ways of escaping police or villains with guns pointed in your direction, semi-clever rebus solutions and glorious locations. Even the product placements are included. But if you are looking for exciting reading and a plot with even a semblance of historical accuracy, you won’t find it here.