The da Vinci Code

I approached Dan Brown's The da Vinci Code late last night with optimism; I still had a light buzz on from an excellent dinner (my sister's birthday) with even better wine, and I had heard mostly good things about the book from friends. Not to mention that the New York Times had dubbed it a "brainy thriller" and a work of "blockbuster perfection". Only one brave dissenter labelled it disappointing and mediocre, but as this was a throwaway comment from an acquaintance, I had little doubts that this book would be rewarding. But even the wine and a pleasant weariness were not enough to keep me from sadly filing this thriller under "miscellaneous" in about 25 minutes.

The initial page labelled "Fact" about the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei sent some warning signals that this book was going to rake the dirt yet again on a few conspiracy theories, but the statement "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate" should have been an even stronger warning; normally something like this is buried in a preface, but calling it out on a "Fact" page suggested a risk that we were about to be exposed to wearisome documentary-like descriptions lodged in lengthy narrative. But this could also be just a quirk of the author, so I skipped on merrily (literally) to the first page of the novel.

The initial scene with the curator was a little stodgy but the intent masochism of the albino agent in chapter two though crude was sufficiently effective to keep me reading. I stumbled a little at the musings of the protagonist in chapter three that the French "could not have chosen a more apt national emblem than a thousand-foot phallus" (the Eiffel tower). Surely this was a bad joke; by this crude measure, all architecture of any height resembles a phallus, so the Manhattan skyline must look to the author like a line-up in an all-male gang bang. This introspection sits so badly alongside the otherwise reverential detail of Paris architecture (but then again the protagonist is an expert on symbology so he should know). The musing by this character proceeds in just a few pages to include 'It's your circus' and 'I'm trapped in a Salvador Dali painting', which were beginning to make me feel trapped in an overrated novel.

The arrival of Bezu Fache, who is described several times over just three pages, was a struggle to read through; he must surely be a god-like being of infinite facets to be described by such an abundance of (bitterly cliched) metaphors and similes:

The man was stocky and dark, almost Neanderthal, dressed in a dark double-breasted suit that strained to cover his wide shoulders. He advanced with unmistakable authority on squat, powerful legs.
And a mere three sentences later:
His tone was fitting - a gutteral rumble... like a gathering storm.

And 2 short pages later:

Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow's peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship.

I began to read on in fear that pages soon after would describe his hands, feet, arms, back and teeth but it appeared I would be spared this, for now. After some dialogue and a little detail inside the Louvre, the chapter clangs to an end with the protagonist being concerned about how suavely he slides under a heavy iron gate despite the reader being notified moments earlier that he is claustrophobic and fears lifts after plunging to the bottom of one as a child.

But when the next chapter launched into a docu-diatribe on Opus Dei, I began to feel the tug of sleep and the promise of an escape into dreams. I ended on this paragraph:

'Many call Opus Dei a brainwashing cult,' reporters often challenged. 'Others call you an ultra-conservative Christian society. Which are you?'

This clumsy use of quotes within narrative is just one more indictment of the author's skill with perspective. Perhaps I expect too much, but I like a book that knows what it is: a documentary, a drama, a thriller, a soap, and is capable of delivering that in a reasonable style. Dan Brown's book seems to be an awkward weaving of all of these.

Ah well, my stash from the library includes Michael Connelly's Lost Light which looks promising, Robert Harris' Enigma which has an imaginative setting and a first page that reads beautifully, and Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh which I am definitely saving for lucid daylight.


Colm, If you want to read a masterly work along similar premises, but, beautifully constructed and stunningly written ... then I'd recommend 'Foucault's Pendulum' by Umberto Eco. A much more rewarding book ... Craig

Posted by Craig Morgan on December 05, 2004 at 12:15 AM PST #

I agree with your comments - I thought the premise of the book was interesting and could have made a good story. However, Dan Brown's writing style is appalling, his characterisations are wooden and the book looks for all the world like a cut and paste job of the most cliche-riddled bits of the last decade's worst potboilers. Even Jeffrey Archer can do better than this.

Posted by Alan Burlison on December 05, 2004 at 03:01 AM PST #

Dan Brown's stuff is abysmal. Its hard to see how he's sold the number of books he has. I agree with your criticisms entirely.

I do hope you will enjoy the book Enigma. I liked the movie tremendously although one should not assume it is entirely historically accurate. It showed the stresses the code breakers were under, the nature of the work and the fact that the Germans were trying to penetrate Blechly Park. So many books, so little time.

Posted by Paul Rogers on December 05, 2004 at 04:23 AM PST #

Craig, I also made the connection with Foucault's Pendulum - the setting in the museum made it easy to make the connection, and harder to live with the disappointment of Brown's book.

Alan, you said it much more succinctly than I, but I hate to knock a popular book without getting into some specifics. I better write something nice about the next couple of books before I get labelled Mr. Cranky ;)

Paul, I agree with you entirely about time and books. I'm so glad I made a clean break from broadcast television (aside from news) about 6 months ago - so much more time for reading.

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 05, 2004 at 08:49 AM PST #

I think you'll find Enigma to be a much, much better book. There were a lot of things wrong with the Da Vinci Code - the quality of writing left a signal amount to be desired, the characterisation was more caricaturisation than anything. A lot of the characters struck me as writing by numbers. Not all that impressed with the level of research around Parisian geography. Ultimately I wound up finishing it to find out what happened in the end, but really, by the time I got there, I didn't really care.

Posted by Treasa on December 05, 2004 at 07:21 PM PST #

Treasa, I left a comment on your blog relating to Robert Frost - I think the poem you were thinking of is Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 05, 2004 at 08:35 PM PST #

Colm, I got it thanks - I'm not familiar with the Bruce Hornsby song you mentioned although I've quite liked any of his songs I have heard. I bought the collected poems of Robert Frost at the weekend - it's like visiting a whole new world, or, old world in truth.

Posted by Treasa on December 06, 2004 at 12:28 AM PST #

If anyone is impressed by Enigma the film then I strongly suggest you read the book, much better ... but the novel is a very pale (fictionalised) retelling of a fantastic story which is very well documented in Andrew Hodges biography of Alan Turing ( If you can find an edition of the book available (Amazon?) then I would strongly suggest purchasing, fantastic reading for anyone with a computing interest and a great historical telling of the life of a tortured genius. A quite inspiring read ... BTW, I'd also strongly recommend Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, much better writing and a beautifully twisted winding ramble thru a fascinating period of history. Craig

Posted by Craig Morgan on December 06, 2004 at 05:54 PM PST #

Craig, thanks for the tips. I was instantly sold by your description of the Turing biography and a quick look at the praises for the Baroque Cycle have confirmed that too.

BTW, I noticed afterwards that the cover praises for Dan Brown's book were all from the New York Times or their stable of bestselling authors. That's something to watch out for in future.

Posted by Colm Smyth on December 06, 2004 at 06:23 PM PST #

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