Title: The Da Vinci Code
Author: Dan Brown
Brown, Dan (2004). The Da Vinci Code. New York : Doubleday
- Leonardo, da Vinci, 1452-1519–Appreciation–Fiction.
- Art museum curators–Crimes against–Fiction.
- Secret societies–Fiction.
- Paris (France)–Fiction.
Date Posted: September 11, 2015
Reviewed by Mark Lawson
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 organization. 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 hemorrhaging 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 organization 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 realized that the four-year schedule of modern Olympic Games still followed the cycles of Venus.” Otherwise, he favors 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 defense: 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.