The Da Vinci Clunker

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Da Vinci Clunker

  1. Eirik

    Having read “Demons and angels” as well, this book is quite disappointing in retrospect. In many ways it read like a watered-down rehash of the previous book, which had all the art history, the secret society, the involvement of the Catholic Church and less of the pandering to a broad audience (the Illuminati are more interesting than the Priory of Zion, to put it mildly). But I guess that’s what often happens when the mass-market breakthrough comes…
    He seems to have been thinking about these subjects for quite some time BTW – try searching Google Groups for “Dan Brown Illuminati”. πŸ˜‰

  2. Espen

    I did – mind-boggling results of innumeracy, historical mumbo-jumbo and sometimes rather playful paranoia. A number of people have pointed out that the The Last Supper painting looks nothing like what Dan Brown writes in his book (which is why there is not picture of it, I suppose). I don’t mind such historical inaccuracy (after all, this is fiction) as much as the inaccuracies in the modern descriptions.
    Oh well. There are other books to read.

  3. Clark

    Boy, Espen hits it right on the head — this could make a fun and exciting screenplay, but the writing is so mediocre that it’s painful. Exactly the same reaction I had to trying to read Clancy’s Red October (which was turned into a spectacular film, IMHO) or anything by John Grisham. Contrast this to someone like Scott Turow, who can write cinematic suspense and mystery but who can also put together an interesting turn of phrase from time to time. Both Da Vinci Code and its predecessor, Angels and Demons, are totally devoid of a well-written sentence and survive completely on plot.
    Having said that, I was so ignorant of Illuminati history and some of the misdeeds of the Catholic Church that I found that part of the plot to be very intriguing and warranting more study. How much of Brown’s historical references can be taken as accurate is for someone else with better knowledge to describe, but I found it interesting at least. Also, the book moves along at great pace — I read it straight through on a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo — and when I saw a copy of Angels and Demons in paperback in an English bookstore in Beijing, I bought it for the ride home. Little could I imagine that Da Vinci was a virtual re-write of the first book! I was shocked — the plots and main characters are identical (allowing for the protagonist to be the same Harvard professor in both, Clancy-style). The second half of Angels goes off the deep end with Vatican conspiracy plot twists, which is why Da Vinci is ultimately resolved in a more believable and tidy manner, but both have, in addition to the professor, a lovely and brilliant female in distress whose academic father has been brutally murdered and mutilated by the cult conspirators, triggering the cooperation of the professor and the FID (female in distress) to solve the mystery before the cops can (who are invariably compromised by someone on the inside). And of course, the key conspirator is telegraphed well in advance.
    So I guess this is the stuff of bestsellers, but even Clancy and Grisham have not, to my knowledge, ripped off their own work to such a blatant degree. Of the two, Da Vinci is ultimately cleaner and more satisfying, but the alternate-religion hokum wears you down by the end.

  4. Anders Jacobsen's blog

    Reading more about the Da Vinci Code

    Searching on Amazon and Google reveals that a raft of authors and ‘authors’ have tagged on to the Da Vinci Code hype and there are rafts of books providing more or less factual background information to the original plot line. My question to you, honou…

  5. PF

    Dan Brown is shallow, he tugs at the heartstrings by building mares nest. “Phantasy” and “Magick” is the name of peddling prodigious, pretentious trash. This is light Seltzero of Omen (In) fame !!! Off course readers suck. Like his characters Brown’s literary style hang in limboland. Erewhon that is .

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