The Da Vinci Code: Much Ado About Secret Societies and Faux Theology

Although I have been a voracious reader since I was a wee lad, there are certain genres in popular fiction that I avoid. For instance, it doesn’t matter how desperate for reading material I might be, but you’ll never catch me reading a Harlequin Romance novel; it might be entertaining and a light read, but I know I’ll end up rolling my eyes and say to myself, If only real-life love were so simple!

Another genre I avoid is the wide-ranging mystery-thriller category, which includes anything smacking of police procedurals and/or dogged detective work. Perhaps it’s because I tried reading a few Agatha Christie novels in high school and simply couldn’t get into them, or maybe it’s because novels by such authors as Patricia Cromwell and Sue Grafton make me feel, um, stupid. The closest I ever come to suspense or mystery is when I read a Tom Clancy novel, but that author, like Stephen Coonts and Harold Coyle, writes about the military and intelligence communities, not about brainy CSI types who can find out whodunit by looking at the patterns of blood splatters on a crime scene’s floor.

Nevertheless, I have been intrigued – in a somewhat bemused fashion – by the longevity of author Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code in the Top 10 Best-Sellers list. It’s hovered in the Top 5 since it was first published in April 2003, and director Ron (Cinderella Man) Howard is filming the movie adaptation, with actor Tom Hanks playing the role of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. In addition, The Da Vinci Code is becoming so entrenched into our popular culture that The History Channel now airs such “documentaries” as Cracking the Code and The Real Da Vinci Code.

Now, given the book’s extraordinary success, I thought it just had to be one of those wonderful cultural experiences that would alter my reading habits and turn me on to Brown’s other novels (Angels and Demons, Deception Point, Digital Fortress). After all, I’d had a similar experience when I read Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in 1985, so why not with The Da Vinci Code?

Now that I’ve managed to slog through the novel’s 454 pages, I still can’t figure out why in tarnation this book is so, as Paris Hilton might say, “hot.”

The novel begins, as many thrillers must, with a murder. In this case, the victim is Jacques Saurniere, a 76-year-old curator who works at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Shot in the belly by a huge albino who has pursued him all the way into the museum’s Grand Gallery, Saurniere desperately needs to find some way to pass on the secret for which he has been shot to the one person he trusts – his granddaughter Sophie Neveu, a cryptographer in the Paris police department. Among many bizarre details the dying man leaves behind is this inscription:

13-3-2-21-1-1-8-5
O, Draconian Devil!
Oh, lame saint!
P.S. Find Robert Langdon

To Paris police Capt. Fache, the inscription is apparently nonsense except for the last bit, which would seem to be a dying man’s ID of his killer. To Langdon and Sophie, however, Saurniere’s desperate code is merely the first of many clues to a centuries-old mystery involving not one but two secretive societies, the hidden messages left behind by a great artist inside one of his masterpieces, and a religious revelation so explosive that it might forever alter the teachings of the Catholic Church.

To explain further would, of course, spoil The Da Vinci Code for maybe the last five or six bibliophiles who may not have read either the novel or any of the other reviews in Epinions or Amazon. Let’s just say that Robert Langdon and Sophie’s late night meeting at the Louvre is the start of a race against time, as well as Capt. Fache, the albino, and “other interested parties” who’ll stop at nothing – not even murder and intimidation – to prevent a “new truth” about Jesus Christ and his followers from being revealed to the world.

Had the novel been written by a better writer of prose – or a better storyteller – I probably would have enjoyed The Da Vinci Code more than I did. I have in the past forgiven authors such as Tom Clancy for not being wonderful wordsmiths because they compensate by crafting good and compelling storylines. Brown, however, is neither a good storyteller nor a writer whose style is rich and refreshingly original; on the contrary, it’s rather dry and somewhat sparse, so minimal that it almost reads like a screenplay clumsily expanded to novel form:

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Considering the blandness of Brown’s prose, I can only guess that the success of The Da Vinci Code stems from its pseudo-intellectual ruminations about two secretive societies, one made up of intellectuals and artists, the other representing the more conservative branches of the Catholic Church. Clearly, the novel’s “revelation” has created a lot of buzz, as ardent Catholics and other Christians seem to be alarmed by the book’s fascination with the feminine divine and the supposedly “true” meaning of the Holy Grail. And, of course, as the scandal over A Million Little Pieces shows, “buzz” translates into more book sales – and more royalties for even mediocre writers.

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