The Da Vinci Code

Reviewed: August 3, 2005
By: Dan Brown
Publisher: Doubleday
464 pages, $37.95

It’s been over two years since The Da Vinci Code first appeared and as of this week the hardcover edition is still holding down the number 5 spot of the New York Times bestseller list.

The book has spurred the re-release of Brown’s three previous novels in paperback editions and, unusually, new hardcover editions of both the Robert Langdon books. Angels and Demons and the Code can be seen all across the country in oversized, lavishly illustrated editions that provide pictures of all the artwork and scenery used in the novels. This sort of treatment is generally reserved for deluxe editions of the Bible or 25th anniversary editions of famous works of literature.

It’s weird. Usually the book would have made it to paperback by now, but the only edition I can find is in French. A friend did come back from a trip to England with a paperback edition, but there’s not one in English in North America yet.

Part of this is explained by the notoriety that the book has achieved. It has been featured in all the major newsmagazines and countless newspaper articles. A quick Google search yields more than two million reference hits.

It’s all because of the religious angle. Time and MacLean’s could have predicted this. The publishers of each magazine know that the fastest way to boost sales is to feature a cover story on some aspect of the Christian Church, and that Christ covers are a big draw for the newsstand edition. They’d use them more than the twice a year they do if they could find an excuse. This year, the death of Pope Jean-Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict provided them with extra related cover stories.

I’ve read Dan Brown’s other books, and enjoyed them, even though, as I’ve said here before, they work on the level of pulp fiction and are seriously formulaic. If you’ve read one of them and spotted the main villain then you will always be able to spot the character who fills that role in his other books, even though he also fills his plots with lots of red herrings and other people who look like they ought to be the villains.

But the stories are still fun. So, naturally, I wanted to read The Da Vinci Code, even though I’ve already read some of the books Brown used as the source material for the Big Idea behind the conspiracy in this book, just as I had when I read Angels and Demons.

If you want to know where the Templar conspiracy comes from, as well as the notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a family, all you really have to do is grab a copy of the  book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh (recently reissued in paperback, and in an oversized illustrated version as well - how about that?). It has most of the main points. Books on the history of the Knights Templar provide the rest.

I just wasn’t willing to pay $39 for the Code. I got tired of waiting for the paperback and downloaded a digital version to carry on my palm handheld for a third of that. It kept me entertained in several shopping malls in Ontario while my wife was trying to find stores that sold something other than low-rise pants for women.

 If you’ve read the first Langdon book, you will blink as the Code begins. The two books are structurally so similar that Brown even has Langdon comment on it in the text of Code. You wouldn’t want to read the two books too close together. It would be like like reading old Shadow and Doc Savage pulp novels too close to each other - the plots run together as the chase-encounter-defeat escape-revelation cycle whirrs on.

The biggest difference in Langdon’s situation this time is that he’s a suspect in the grisly murder instead of just a consultant. This rest works out the same, even to have him meet and collaborate with a strong female partner who often seems to know as much about what’s going on as he does and is frequently more physically pro-active.

As in Angels and Demons, there is a really nasty religious fanatic murdering people all through the book. He is an acolyte of the leader of Opus Dei, a very conservative Roman Catholic organization with a mission to save the church from liberalism and from the Grail secret that could destroy it. Both of these men are being manipulated by a mysterious stranger who calls himself the Teacher.

The curator of the Louvre Museum is the custodian of a very important secret. He is murdered by the albino assassin before he can pass it on to his niece, Sophie Neveu, who happens to work as a cryptanalyst for the Paris police. She and Langdon have to escape a city wide manhunt for him and, at the same time, unlock the labyrinthine puzzles within which Sophie’s uncle has hidden his secret.

There are lots of word games, chases and near misses to keep us interested, enough even to outweigh the ton of expository dialogue in which the characters explain to each other what is going on and all the secret lore behind it.

The book kept me reading, even though I knew where it was going, so I guess that says something for Brown’s ability with a story.

As far as the theology and history which seems to be exciting such interest, you can ignore it except for the purposes of the story. Those who want to make serious discussion topics out of the ideas in this plot really need to do some research of their own. It’s a story, and it bears as much resemblance to truth as the average episode of the X-Files did to any real FBI investigation.