The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
454pp, Bantam, £10.99
The conspiracy thriller, it can be argued, is the purest kind of bestseller. The premise of such books is that there's no such thing as a random happening; meanwhile, though bestsellers aren't exactly conspiracies, most huge publishing successes can be traced back to a web of connected events, so that form and content collide to an unusual degree.
For example, Peter Benchley's Jaws was probably a good enough story to find readers at any time, but became a mid-70s sensation because the implications of the plot - horrible, sudden death in a holiday resort - reflected the neuroses of an affluent American generation enduring both a cold war and an oil war. Helen Fielding spotted that young unmarrieds were a social grouping without a literature; Allison Pearson noticed the same gap for working mums.
And coming up to two years after September 11, 2001 - roughly the time it takes conventional fiction publishing to respond to cultural shifts - what did we find unstoppably atop the American fiction charts? Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, 450 pages of irritatingly gripping tosh, offers terrified and vengeful Americans a hidden pattern in the world's confusions.
When bad things happen, Brown reassures us, it is probably because of the machinations of a 1,000-year-old secret society which is quietly running the world, though often in conflict with another hidden organisation. There are probably a couple of verses in Nostradamus predicting the triumph of The Da Vinci Code: "As the painted French woman smiles/The Brown man will top the heap", or something similar. Certainly, the novel's success can be attributed to those who read Nostradamus and believe that the smoke from the blazing twin towers formed the face of the devil or Osama bin Laden.
What happens in The Da Vinci Code is ... alert readers will have noticed a delay in getting round to plot summary, but it takes time to force the face straight. Anyway, my lips are now level, so let's go. Art expert Jacques Sauniere is discovered murdered in the Louvre, having somehow found the strength in his last haemorrhaging moments to arrange his body in the shape of a famous artwork and leave a series of codes around the building.
These altruistic clues are interpreted by Robert Langdon, an American "professor of religious symbology" who, by chance, is visiting Paris, and Sophie Neveu, a French "cryptologist" who is the granddaughter of the artistic cadaver in the Louvre.
As they joust with authorial research - about the divine proportion in nature and the possibility that the Mona Lisa is a painting of Leonardo himself in drag - a thug from the secretive Catholic organisation Opus Dei, under orders from a sinister bishop, is also trying to understand the meaning of the imaginative corpse in the museum.
It all seems to be connected with the Priory of Sion, a secret society. Reading a book of this kind is rather like going to the doctor for the results of tests. You desperately want to know the outcome but have a sickening feeling about what it might prove to be. In this case, the answer was as bad as I'd feared.
Recently, crime and thriller fiction has been increasingly easy to defend against literary snobs at the level of the sentence. Not here. Brown keeps lugging in nuggets from his library: "Nowadays, few people realised that the four-year schedule of modern Olympic Games still followed the cycles of Venus." Otherwise, he favours clunking, one-line plot-quickeners: "Andorra, he thought, feeling his muscles tighten." French characters speak in American, while occasionally throwing in a "précisement" to flap their passport at us.
Criticism won't hurt Brown, who can probably now buy an island with his royalties and a second one with the film rights. The author has, though, recently found himself on the end of an unwanted conspiracy theory: another writer has accused him of plagiarism. In strongly denying this, Brown employed a striking defence: that the points of overlap were clichés which were part of the genre of the thriller and therefore belonged to no one writer.
This admission of unoriginality may further anger readers and writers annoyed by seeing something as preposterous and sloppy (one terrible howler involves the European passport system) as The Da Vinci Code on its way to selling millions. But the success of this book is due not to the writing but to post-9/11 therapy. It tells so many Americans what they want to hear: that everything is meant. In doing so, Brown has cracked the bestseller code.
· Mark Lawson's novel Going Out Live is published by Picador.
A fascinating and absorbing thriller -- perfect for history buffs, conspiracy nuts, puzzle lovers or anyone who appreciates a great, riveting story.
While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call: the elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum. Near the body, police have found a baffling cipher. While working to solve the enigmatic riddle, Langdon is stunned to discover it leads to a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci -- clues visible for all to see -- yet ingeniously disguised by the painter.
Langdon joins forces with a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, and learns the late curator was involved in the Priory of Sion -- an actual secret society whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Da Vinci, among others.
In a breathless race through Paris, London, and beyond, Langdon and Neveu match wits with a faceless powerbroker who seems to anticipate their every move. Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine puzzle in time, the Priory's ancient secret -- and an explosive historical truth -- will be lost forever.
The Da Vinci Code heralds the arrival of a new breed of lightning-paced, intelligent thriller utterly unpredictable right up to its stunning conclusion.
Robert Langdon awoke slowly.
A telephone was ringing in the darkness--a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Where the hell am I?
The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram:
HOTEL RITZ PARIS.
Slowly, the fog began to lift.
Langdon picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Monsieur Langdon?" a man's voice said. "I hope I have not awoken you?"
Dazed, Langdon looked at the bedside clock. It was 12:32 A.M. He had been asleep only an hour, but he felt like the dead.
"This is the concierge, monsieur. I apologize for this intrusion, but you have a visitor. He insists it is urgent."
Langdon still felt fuzzy. A visitor? His eyes focused now on a crumpled flyer on his bedside table.
THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF PARIS
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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!The following questions are intended to enhance your discussion, spotlight memorable passages, and make your reading experience of The Da Vinci Code even livelier.
- As a symbologist, Robert Langdon has a wealth of academic knowledge that helps him view the world in a unique way. Now that you've read The Da Vinci Code, are there any aspects of life/history/faith that you are seeing in a different light?
- Langdon and Teabing disagree as to whether the Sangreal documents should be released to the world. If you were the Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, would you release the documents? If so, what do you think their effect would be?
- What observations does this novel make about our past? How do these ideas relate to our future?