Dan Brown

Inferno (2016)

Inferno (2016)

(Video on Demand, February 2016) With Inferno, Tom Hanks is back for a third largely indifferent time as Robert Langdon, one of his career’s most undistinguished roles. One can’t fault Hank for teaming up with Ron Howard in adapting one of the most high-profile thriller series of the century so far … but the problem with Langdon is that he’s a character fully fleshed out by Hanks alone. There’s little on the page (either the book or the script) to make Langdon anything more than a fountain of information and a mannequin running through a convoluted plot. In the absence of such niceties, we’re left to rely on Tom Hanks, all-around American good guy, to give life to the series. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Inferno wisely dispensed with the most infuriating element of the novel’s conclusion, although they didn’t soften the moronic overpopulation rationale. The plot is ludicrous and the historical trivia is generally unremarkable, but the film does its best to wring a few honest moments of suspense from the result. I do believe that the film is an improvement over the borderline-unlikable book, but that’s not much of a baseline to begin with. (Inferno is the novel that finally made me give up on Dan Brown after being a bit of a contrarian cheerleader for him in post-The Da Vinci Code times.) You can argue that the story is more interesting than the previous two Langdon movies, but the freshness of the symbologist-as-hero premise has faded almost entirely. The result is average without dipping into mediocrity, which would have been a real danger at this point in the series. This being said, this is no call for a sequel. Let Hanks do something else.

Inferno, Dan Brown

Inferno, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2013, 480 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8

How appropriate that Dan Brown’s Inferno would have me thinking about catastrophe theory and how it relates to reviewing: If Brown can link trans-humanism, obsolete Malthusian hysteria, Florentine history and Dante’s Inferno in the service of a moderately dull thriller, then what’s stopping me from misappropriating a branch of mathematical theory in order to make the point that I’m suddenly exasperated by Brown’s shtick?

I suppose that a few reminders and pieces of background information are in order: Inferno is Brown’s sixth novel, the fourth to feature “symbologist” Robert Langon racing against the clock to solve intricate historical puzzles before a very modern and immediate threat unfolds.  The Da Vinci Code (2003) needs no introduction as one of the most widely read novel of the past decade, leading to controversy and a movie adaption in 2006; Angels and Demons (2000) was also adapted to the big-screen in 2009, whereas The Lost Symbol (2009) made a splash as the first direct sequel to The Da Vinci Code after years of silence from Brown. 

Inferno shows up four years later, and delivers almost exactly what readers had been expecting: Standard thriller mechanics set against a richly-detailed travelogue, as the protagonist uses arcane knowledge to fight against a very contemporary threat.  This time around, it’s Florence (and a few other European destinations later in the novel) that provide the scenery, historical facts and enigmas to solve. 

But the real mystery is this: I have defended Dan Brown against a number of detractors in the past, especially when I pointed out the savvier aspects of The Da Vinci Code against those who wanted to dismiss the book entirely.  Save for Digital Fortress, I could find good things to say about every one of Brown’s other books.  Why, then, do I feel so exasperated and frustrated by Inferno?

It does handle a few things quite competently.  The initial set-up makes good use of the good old amnesia trope in order to place our protagonist in desperate circumstances.  Why is he in a Florentine hospital?  Why does he have a dangerous-looking artifact in his possessions?  And why-oh-why are people shooting at him?  As he retraces his steps with the help of a beautiful smart woman (the fourth in as many books –Langdon clearly isn’t very good at long-term relationships), he get to understand that he’s going through a do-over of his past few days, hoping to avoid what put him under medical care.

And for about three-quarter of the book, it feels dull and interminable.  The accumulation of historical details that Langdon absorbs is a flood of trivia that has little to do with the plot, and unless you happen to be fascinated by Florentine history to a level to rival the Roman, Parisian/Londonian and Washingtonian settings of the previous Langdon novels, chances are that Inferno will be a tough slog.  Readers will make it through by repeating to themselves that it will get better, eventually.  Or that the novel may work better if you’re on the ground in Florence, pointing at the things described in the novel.

And while it does get better, this change for the best comes at the expense of credibility-destroying narrative tricks in which villains are revealed to be heroes, allies are unmasked as psychopathological monsters and everything Langdon thought he knew (or more pointedly didn’t) crumbles as a sham.  In order to do that, Brown has to skirt perilously close to lying to his audience –readers who don’t like such narrative sleight-of-hand won’t find much to love here.  On the other hand, it does give a narrative kick in the pants to what had, until then, been a fairly sedate thriller, so there’s that.

But as the last act of the novel unfolds, my boredom at the novel transformed into annoyance, especially as the villain’s plan was revealed.  While Brown does his damndest to give a shred of justification to the actions of his antagonist by pointing out the evils of overpopulation, his screed seems to be roughly forty years out of date, and unsupported by current research.

(To summarize a complex set of objections, in a nutshell: Overpopulation is real and dangerous, but unlike the alarmist predictions of the 1970s, we now know a few things: Big populations have advantages for just about everything, from medical care to arts development to scientific progress to a well-functioning economy to better models for feeding a densely-packed community.  Better yet: Demographic statistics clearly demonstrate that overpopulation is a self-regulating problem, and that the world’s population will stabilize within a few decades –in fact is already doing so in large areas of the world.  Furthermore, advances in agriculture, environmentalism and logistics show that sustainable populations are within reach –the realities of 2013 disprove most of the so-called “realistic” thinking of the 1970s.  Simply put: Overpopulation is solving itself to non-problematic status.)

Lunatic thinking by a novel’s villain is, of course, nothing new or unexpected.  The end of Inferno, however, suggests that this is lunatic thinking by the author himself.  The world-changing stunt at the end of the novel is problematic on numerous levels.  Even by the standards of previous novels, it may be time for Langdon to take an indefinite retirement while Brown moves on to other protagonists, because the universe he inhabits is getting cluttered by incompatible mythologies, radical events and Grand Revelations.

Other annoyances abound: After several bout with Brown’s tone-deaf style, I’m finally acknowledging that he could write better.  I’m not at all pleased by the easy equation of trans-humanism with cuckoo-crazy antagonists.  Langdon is still as boring a protagonist as it’s possible to write in popular fiction.  The ending shows that the protagonist’s efforts all were for naught, negating the point of the narrative.  And have I mentioned that before the frantic last quarter of the novel, practically nothing noteworthy happens as we’re fed reams of Florentine history?

Aas you already surely know, faithful reader, catastrophe theory is the study of “sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances”.  None of what has annoyed me in Inferno (the digressions, the nonsense science, the bad writing, the repetitive plotting, allies revealed as villains, Langdon’s lack of personality, the insane plot twists) hasn’t shown up in at least two of Brown’s previous novels.  But something has certainly changed since The Lost Symbol: myself as a reader, Brown’s smugness as a writer, the cultural matrix in which we live, or some deep zeitgeist shift barely perceptible through anyone’s Twitter feed.  As a result, I find myself disenchanted by Inferno and generally put off by Dan Brown as a writer.  His shtick doesn’t feel interesting any more, and I’m not at all tempted to defend him anymore.  Small changes, big behavioral shifts: I don’t intend to buy his next novel.  I’m pretty sure I already know how it turns out.

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2009, 509 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-50422-5

Six years after the release of The Da Vinci Code (surely you’ve heard of it?), Dan Brown has a brand-new novel in store: The Lost Symbol.  The good and bad news are, indeed, the same: It’s an almost identical reading experience.

There are a few differences between Brown’s latest novel and its predecessors, but not that many.  Consider this: Robert Langdon runs around a world-class city with a beautiful scientist, piecing together historical clues to avert a terrible event while trying to outwit a spiritually-motivated antagonist with a penchant for self-mutilation.  Familiar?  Yes.  Good enough for a third go-around?  Well, why not?

This time, “Symbologist” (aka; trivia-master) Robert Langdon is called to Washington, where he gets to talk masonry with a woman studying pseudo-sciences.  They race around and under official buildings, survive attempts on their lives and spend half a day citing encyclopedia snippets at each other.  Surprisingly enough, it’s fun: While The Lost Symbol is a bit too familiar to create the same enthralling feeling as its predecessor, its accumulation of cheap stock thriller situations, short cliffhanging chapters, plausible-sounding details and compelling imagery makes it hard to stop reading.  It’s not refined but it’s got the essence of genre fiction entertainment.  The writing is even a bit better than in the previous books… or at least not quite as awful.

The Lost Symbol even shows that Brown can have a sense of humor about himself: Early on, he takes potshots at the controversy about his previous novel (“My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused!” [P.8]), his image (“He was wearing the usual charcoal turtleneck.” [P.8]) and, later on, editors complaining about the lateness of his novel (“You owe me a manuscript. [P.176]).  While the suspense is usually too talky to be gripping, there are at least two memorable sequences in the book, one taking place in a completely dark hangar, and the other one pushing the whole “Character’s dead.  Dead-dead-dead.” shtick as far as it can go, and then a little bit further for good measure.  Cheap twists abound, although Brown does manage to do a few interesting things with parallel storytelling at times.

Sadly, The Lost Symbol occasionally gets muddled on the shoals of yadda-yadda pseudoscience discredited back in the seventies but revived today as “noetic science” thanks to quantium jargon.  Brown may swear up and down that all the science in his book is true, but we know better.  (As a computer specialist, I’m usually disappointed whenever Brown discusses computers, and this novel has its share of IT nonsense as well.)  The pseudo-science, thankfully, doesn’t really affect the major plot lines of the book, but it’s a distracting-enough subplot that the novel could have dispensed with.

Ironically, it almost takes mental muscles shaped by science-fiction to truly appreciate what Brown is attempting in the last tenth of the novel.  What he frequently does well (and what many imitators often forget) is to present a series of conceptual breakthroughs, big and small, that reveal the true shape of the world to protagonists and readers alike.  This is rarely as obvious as in the last fifty pages of The Lost Symbol: Once past the final action climax, the main plotline of the novel has been wrapped up with a few chapters still left to go.  It’s all over but for a few more revelations, which may be more conceptually important to Brown than the end of the thriller plot-line: The novel concludes on a pair of scenes meant to evoke a strong sense of wonder, and science-fiction readers will have been trained to respond well to such revelations.

As for everyone else, well, the old saw hold true: “If you liked The Da Vinci Code, then…” yes, you’re going to like The Lost Symbol.  Conversely, those who hated Brown’s previous novels won’t be seduced by this one.  It is what it is, and if the same mixture of elements could have been quite a bit more interesting in better hands, it does manage to outdo many of the so-called “Da Vinci clones” in delivering the mixture of trivia, thrills, nonsense and fast pacing that we’ve come to expect from Brown.  It may be late in coming, but it does deliver.

(Amateur puzzle-solvers will be happy to note that the US dust jacket sports at least four puzzles, and a few Easter Eggs.  I wasted an enjoyable thirty minutes solving two puzzles before rushing to read the solutions on-line.  As for the Easter Eggs, one of them will make you feel better about the recent loss of the traditional Doubleday “Anchor” logo.)

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

(In theaters, May 2006) This film is as critic-proof as they come, what with its built-in audience, puffed-up controversy and all-star cast and crew. No matter what anyone say, it’ll make zillions and find a modest place of some sort in film history. Stripped of the hype, though, it’s no surprise to find that The Da Vinci Code is merely an average thriller, competently made but hardly innovative. In many ways, it’s fitting that two of the blandest (but competent) Hollywood stars of the moment, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, would help in delivering the epitome of mass-market cinema entertainment. Perfectly blending French and American cinema, The Da Vinci Code delivers endless conversations rudely interrupted by car chases and modest gunfights. Of the actors, only Ian McKellen is any fun at all as a mischievous historian with a flamboyant streak: Tom Hanks, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou are wasted in roles that either don’t suit them or are cut short without much conclusion. But the film’s most distinctive trait is how it alternates between talky exposition and very average thriller episodes. To be fair, the book was just as bad, except that the roughshod charm of Dan Brown’s clunky-but-earnest prose had a forward rhythm of its own. I expect a huge number of academic papers to be written on the adaptation of this story from one medium to another, especially when you consider that the book seems faster-paced that the film. While the critical knives had been drawn in anticipation of this film, the end result in no way deserves a critical savaging: in most aspects, it’s perfectly serviceable, with a tiny thrill of irreverence considering the subject matter. I’ve seen both better and worse this week. In the end, most people will find this film to be a mirror of their own expectations: Fans of the book will be pleased, curious film-goers will be satisfied and literary critics will find another reason to call Dan Brown the Anti-Christ. Now that’s entertainment for everyone!

Digital Fortress, Dan Brown

St. Martin’s, 1998, 430 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99542-3

There it is. Dan Brown’s first book, well before The Da Vinci Code, and the last one of his I still hadn’t read. Closer to Deception Point‘s techno-thriller feel than either one of the Langdon adventures, Digital Fortress is still nonetheless all about codes and how to break them. Unfortunately, it also seems to be about how many stupid mistakes one can stuff in a novel and still claim to have done research.

You don’t need to know much about the plot, especially if you’ve read other Brown novels: It’s about an unbreakable code, a disabled assassin, a honest man and a honest woman trying to uncover a conspiracy and enough twists and turns to make anyone’s head whiplash. Oh, and it’s also about how, in Brown’s novels, the mentor is always the bad guy. No, seriously.

But what you do need to know is that the technical details are completely ludicrous. I don’t know much about cryptography, but it doesn’t take much knowledge to realize, not even fifty pages in the novel, that Brown is simply ignoring some of the most fundamental axioms of the field. The idea that you can brute-force any unidentified encryption algorithm without understanding its inner workings is moronic. (Hey, what if they’re using one-time pads, hm?) Cryptography experts will suffer while reading this book, but computer specialists won’t do any better: Brown mis-uses elementary concepts (“virus” instead of “worm”, for instance) and still believes, poor child, that computers can ignite when they overheat. (Free hint: fuses.) And that’s not even talking about the hideous security mechanism that seem to be standard procedure at Brown’s NSA… yow.

While a number of those details get overturned by latter plot developments, they still don’t make sense in the story’s internal logic: Our characters, super-brainy cryptography experts they are, should know much better: That they let those things pass without comment only serves to highlight plot holes and deliberate authorial mistakes, not clever hints or deliberate gotchas. What’s worse is when the so-called smart characters blindly flail around trying to pierce together clues that are blatantly obvious to the rest of the readers.

Where those glaring technical problems really hurt is that Brown is trying to position himself as a trustworthy Knower of Stuff, and yet anyone who knows the stuff can clearly see that he’s deliberately making it up. This faux-geek dissonance is enough to break any suspension of disbelief that is a large part of the unspoken pact between reader and writer. You can compare and contrast, if you wish, Brown with authentic nerd-chic authors such as Neal Stephenson: they rarely mess around with the basics, and there’s usually a good reason when they do, as with Cryptonomicon‘s “Finux”.

If you do get past the nonsensical technical details, the novel isn’t particularly well-written or refined. Plot-wise, it seems to be made up of random plot beats taken out of a hat, regardless of sense and plausibility. It just keeps going on until the very last page, which features a “twist” that serves no purpose whatsoever. As far a characters are concerned, it’s all surfaces and clichés: If you want fat Germans tourists, obese computer hackers, well-groomed university teachers and workaholic spinsters, don’t look any further than this book.

But I’ll give one thing to Brown: Like his other novels, Digital Fortress is impossible to drop down once it starts heating up. The short chapters carry along a delicious sense of “just one more…” compulsiveness and Brown’s habit of ending them in false cliffhangers is crudely effective. (One eventually gets the sense that Digital Fortress is plotted like those cheap comic books, with a page ending with “Look out!” and the next one continuing “…isn’t that a pretty flower?”) Brown may have a number of faults, but creating forward momentum is one of his strengths. The writing is simple, the prose is uncomplicated and to undiscerning eyes, the techno-babble must sound impressive. (Much like, I fear to think, the historico-babble in The Da Vinci Code sounded plausible to me.)

It’s unfair to point out that the book flopped when it first came out in 1998 and that it only lives on today on the coattails of its far more famous sibling. And yet I have to wonder who was the original audience for the book: Clumsily written down to what seems to be a broader audience, Digital Fortress is untenable for technical readers, and barely-palatable to techno-thriller fans who know enough about this stuff. (You can’t seriously try to sell the NSA as an ultra-secretive organization to thriller readers; that Brown tries to do so on page 9 either smacks of naiveté or condescension.) But, hey, it’s by that guy who wrote The Da Vinci Code!

Deception Point, Dan Brown

Pocket, 2001, 557 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02738-7

Books seldom get a second chance. Most of them surface in bookstores, don’t sell all that well and disappear in a whimper, never to resurface. In lucky cases, they may be reprinted after a movie adaptation or a runaway bestseller by the same author. In Dan Brown’s case, his publisher didn’t just get one mega-seller with The Da Vinci Code: It got three bonus best-sellers by reprinting Brown’s previous novels, none of which had sold all that well during their first print runs. (The good news is that if you’ve got one of those first editions, you can pretty much pay for your next holidays by selling it to collectors.)

And so that’s how Deception Point re-emerged in bookstores three years after original publication, granted a second life by the boffo success of Brown’s fourth novel. For fans of The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, how does Brown’s third novel stack up?

The least one can say is that there is consistency to his method, even though the atmosphere of the book is different from the “Robert Langdon” thrillers. Deception Point is more political (not partisan, mind you, but with a number of power-playing politicians as characters), more action-oriented and, in some respects, closer to a typical techno-thriller than Brown’s best-known works. For those who complained that The Da Vinci Code was all talk and little action, have a look at this one.

It starts in Washington D.C., as protagonist Rachel Sexton is sent to an Arctic glacier on behalf of the president. Her mission: validate a revolutionary scientific find that you won’t have any trouble guessing ahead of time. But things aren’t so simple, of course. For one thing, Rachel is the daughter of another politician with excellent chances of taking over the White House. For another, there are three Delta Force operatives buried in the snow, making sure that everything goes according to plan…

No doubt about it: Deception Point is a full-bore, straight-ahead thriller that faithfully understands the rules of the genre. Exotic facts, clear characters, steady forward momentum and unobtrusive writing are the norm here, and it’s not hard to imagine Brown asking himself “How can I juice up this storyline?” over and over again. As a result, there are the usual nick-of-time escapes, chases, explosions, fancy deaths and ruthless operators. It’s formulaic, but it works really well in sucking the reader from one tight chapter to another. While the literary and religious world have united in condemning Brown’s success, faithful thriller readers can only appreciate that Brown is just doing what he’s supposed to do. NRO, nuclear submarines, oceanographic research, high-tech weaponry, White House operational details, woo-hoo!

It’s not all good, of course. A number of errors here and there spoil the effect (somehow, I don’t think that an entire meteorite can be heated up by a focused laser), but not as much as a few outrageous developments. In his quest to amplify the impact of his storyline, Brown often overreaches, and the reader is abruptly reminded that this is only, after all, a particularly sophisticated thrill machine. (This impression gets worse as the book nears its end and lasts just a bit too long.) Brown does himself disservice by swearing up and down that technologies described in the book all exist: knowledgeable readers will roll their eyes at the ways he stretches a number of point. His sources of inspiration are also obvious: Echoes of 1996-1998 Bill Clinton are obvious in at least two separate plot threads.

Worse yet for Brown fans is the way he repeats himself from one novel to another. Never trust his mentor characters! What’s both amusing and infuriating is the way Brown is willing to take on sacred cows (the Vatican, CERN, here NASA) in his quest for ever-more fantastic antagonists: While it may be interesting to read about, it also sends a generally muddled message –assuming messages are what Brown wants to send.

Otherwise, well, this is another solid thriller from a writer suddenly hyped beyond any reasonable chance of fulfilling expectations. It may or may not be better, from a technical perspective, than The Da Vinci Code, but it’s sure to offer what people are looking for when they’re picking up a thriller. It seldom slows down during its 550+ pages, and neither will readers.

Angels and Demons, Dan Brown

Pocket, 2000, 572 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02736-0

Curiously, sales and awards often have less to do with the work itself than to previous factors. Movie sequels make most of their first-weekend box-office on the strength of the prequel. Authors sell to established fans. Denzel Washington gets an Oscar for TRAINING DAY. This sort of things.

After the blockbuster success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it’s only natural that all of his back-list should be reissued in mass-paperback format. But after reading Angels and Demons, the direct prequel to The Da Vinci Code, it’s not hard to feel as if Brown is now getting the success he should have enjoyed with the previous book.

From the first few chapters, we can already recognize the ingredients that would make The Da Vinci Code such a success: A mixture of high technology, esoteric knowledge, straightforward (okay; clumsy) prose, pedal-to-the-metal pacing and an interest in the best-known secrets in history. Here, protagonist/symbologist Robert Langdon is summarily brought from Boston to Switzerland when a murder turns out to have links to the ancient legend of the Illuminati. The murder victim is branded by the sign of the mythical brotherhood, his flesh engraved with an ambigram. But there’s even worse; a canister of pure anti-matter is missing. Obviously, Truly Bad Things are about to happen. It doesn’t take a long time for Langdon to link powerful destruction to the Illuminati and deduce that Vatican City is about to go bye-bye. The rest of the book, needless to say, is solidly in the thriller tradition: Learn secrets! Follow the clues! Catch the guilty ones! Save the girl! Find the destructive device!

But a flippant plot summary can’t do justice to the mile-a-minute sheer reading pleasure that we get while going through the book. Brown isn’t much of a stylist, and his exposition style is annoying when you already know what he’s talking about. (The whole CERN section is a bit condescending if you’re already familiar with it. “We invented the web”, etc.) But that soon stops being a problem as the novel advances and we’re swept along the heroes as they run around Rome trying to pierce the secrets of the Illuminati.

While the ideas and secrets and bits of amusing historical trivia unveiled in Angels and Demons aren’t as arresting as the ones in The Da Vinci Code, this first Langdon adventure is far better-constructed than the more popular sequel. Langdon himself is a far more active hero: He fights, figure things out, gets himself out of impossible situations and gets the girl all in slightly more than twelve hours. Whew! The pacing actually accelerates throughout the entire book, unlike The Da Vinci Code, which started deflating halfway through.

Oh, there are still numerous problems with the book: Beyond the clumsy style, the book’s opening is marred by a sense of unreality. Sorry, but CERN doesn’t have an X-33 ready for takeoff. No, “they” don’t have magical powers when it comes to find telephone numbers over the web (unless they’re using DNS records and on-line phone books like the rest of us shlubs.) After that, well, Brown does himself no favours by setting up a false religion/science conflict and lecturing the audience about “who won” in chapter 94. And when the identity of the secret Illuminati master is revealed, well, anyone could have seen it coming…

…but wait! Because right after the big explosion, just as we expect the book to wind down to a graceful finale, something is wrong: There’s still fifty pages left even though everything is in the bag. Could this mean… a twist?

Hell yeah. And not just one. The type of insane twists-upon-twists that pile up and either make the book or destroy it. We’re lucky: Angels and Demons doesn’t just redeem itself, but vaults in the “great thriller” category thanks to the stunning, laugh-in-disbelief finale. Grand revelations. Wonderful red herrings consumed. Dan Brown triumphant, setting the stage for another Langdon adventure.

With retrospect, the success of The Da Vinci Code seems more an more like an inevitability. Books like Angels and Demons are kind of truly honestly good book that end up setting the stage for something bigger. The backlash against Brown is, by now, considerable, but it’s also misguided; if he was still toiling away in obscurity, we’d be in awe of his unusually brainy thrillers.

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

Doubleday, 2003, 454 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50420-9

I would love to review The Da Vinci Code as, simply, a work of fiction. But that’s not possible any more. Not after selling seven million hardcover copies in less than 18 months. Not after spawning a mini-flood of a dozen companion titles (Cracking the Da Vinci Code, etc.) in as little time. Not after it’s been praised or lambasted by a variety of literary and religious authorities. Not after seeing it banned from Lebanon. Certainly not after it has become a pop-culture object in its own right, earning movie-blockbuster attention before even becoming a blockbuster movie.

Reviewing such a book on its own terms is impossible: Any well-informed reviewer comes to the text with expectations, and half of the exercise becomes a validation (or disproof) of external opinions. Quickly followed by an irresistible urge to find out what, exactly, made The Da Vinci Code so successful. Is it due to something in the book’s style, is it the “explosive secret” of the premise, or simply the author’s gift for self-promotion? (Much was made, at the book’s release, of Brown’s aggressive push for on-line reviews).

It doesn’t take many pages to see that there is, indeed, something in The Da Vinci Code to make it so popular. Not the writing, certainly: Brown is earnest, but his style can best be qualified as “clumsy”. Time and time again, experienced readers will trip over a sentence and wonder if there wasn’t a more elegant way of phrasing things. No, the novel’s initial claim to fame is its pacing. The book begins with that sure-fire draw: A murder, as the curator of Le Louvre is shot within the halls of his own museum. Then Brown follows with a macabre mystery: The police, summoned to the scene, discover a cryptic set of notes written by the victim, using his own blood. As our protagonists (Cryptology expert Sohpie Neveu and “symbology” authority Robert Langdon) start pulling at the fine thread of secrets, more and more revelations are made, characters are forced on the run and the novel is off to a fast start. The Da Vinci Code starts like a sprinter and quickly accumulates the forward momentum of a freight train. Try stopping after just a hundred pages: This is pure literary fast food.

But the pacing is just a gateway to the book’s biggest strength: a series of “everything you know is wrong” revelations about historical religious conspiracies and hidden symbolic meaning in everyday life. Like many thriller writers, Brown cleverly plays around with commonly-accepted history and juices up a compelling blend of age-old secret societies, early Christianity trivia and what-if scenarios. Unlike most thriller writers, he obviously hits a nerve. Everyone loves to know a secret, and so The Da Vinci Code serves The Big Ones: The real life of Jesus. The true meaning of the Holy Grail. The source of patriarchy. Whew! Well-done!

Once past the secrets and the pacing of the first half of the book, though, not a lot remains. Perhaps the best thing about Brown’s writing is how he manages to keep up our interest in protagonists constantly lecturing one another. The minimal thriller mechanics (police chases, cracking codes, decoding clues) act as a skeleton for exposition scene after exposition scene. It wears thins midway through, soon after the book’s intellectual climax and biggest revelation. After that, the second half becomes a lot more conventional and settles into a comfortable chase routine. The conclusion eases to a stop with a final revelation that doesn’t seem all that important after all that came before it.

We haven’t mentioned the characters because there isn’t much to say: Protagonist Robert Langdon is curiously passive, content to spout whatever timely exposition is required for Sophie Neveu (and readers) to make sense of what is happening. There’s a limp attempt at character-building (Oooh, look: a Mickey Mouse watch), but otherwise they all act their role in the plot without too much fuss.

In light of this, reviewing “the controversy about The Da Vinci Code” ends up being more interesting than The Da Vinci Code itself. Here, a comparison with movies may be useful: We can’t deny that The Da Vinci Code has received an unprecedented amount of popular attention, which is seldom the case with books. Movies are widely released and burn out their welcome in weeks; novels are more likely to build upon a period of months and, if it’s a classic, acquire a good reputation very slowly. Dan Brown’s novel has defied those traditional patterns and reaped both the benefits and downsides of such attention.

Anyone who reads a lot knows that written fiction can get away with much more controversial material than motion pictures. Horrid horror stories, realistic terrorist plans and subversive ideas are commonplace in genre fiction with nary a peep from the media or religious groups. But when even relatively innocuous films are released, the standards are completely different. Let’s face it; Most mass-market fiction, if rated like movies, would earn a big solid R-rating. But reading is a (comparatively) difficult and unpopular activity; why bother raising a stink when it’s easier to get media attention by criticizing a multi-million-dollar movies starring “real” celebrities?

But when a book breaks the million-copies-sold barrier in such a short time, all bets are off. The book becomes worthy of media stories. Morons who haven’t picked up a book in years are tempted by what everyone is talking about. Everyone starts paying attention, and that includes crackpots, religious groups, would-be censors… and journalists.

There isn’t anything startlingly new or innovative in the ideas kicked around by The Da Vinci Code. Any serious student of religious history already knows about the dodgy history of early Christianity. Any amateur historian knows that Jesus-as-a-historical-figure wasn’t, er, all the Bible hyped him up to be. Heck, any mature reader can see where the reality bleeds into fiction and play along with Brown. But when that much popular attention is concentrated on a book, silly strange things start happening. The book finds its way in hands unaccustomed to the heft of a good thriller. Attentive readers ask questions. Credulous cretins take everything at face value. Cash-grab books purporting to tell “the real story” appear on the market. Religious authorities make pre-emptive strikes against even the slightest whiff of doubt. (Heck, if a silly little thriller can rock any Church, I say that it deserves to be rocked.)

Looking at the amount of media attention still surrounding the book (As of October 1st 2004, news.google.com featured over 450 stories about The Da Vinci Code), I’m tempted to ask how many other books Da Vinci Code readers have read in their lives. Looking online at the massive amount of pseudo-controversy surrounding the novel, I’m surprised anew at the capacity of some people to get worked up over meaningless stuff. Yes, The Da Vinci Code is fiction. Pieces of it are true, and pieces of it are not; as a mature reader, I understand this and am not about to froth at the mouth at the
revelation that Brown may have been a bit fanciful in his telling. But here are web sites seriously arguing the validity of the book’s premise and others gleefully shooting down even minor details. I ask once more; how many books do these people read per year? What would happen if we gave them a copy of Tim Powers’ Declare? Are they so insecure as to spend all of their time dealing with someone else’s imagined universe?

Meanwhile, Dan Brown is making tons of money –and good for him! He may be forever destroyed as a serious thriller author (his next thriller could be a thinly veiled excuse to show his grocery lists to the world, and it would still sell five million copies), but at least he’ll be able to retire on the profits generated by his thin back-list alone. Isn’t that the sweetest thing about this entire phenomenon?

Now just wait until the movie comes out.