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Ancient religious cults, code breaking, conspiracy theories and a good old fashioned mystery are all part of Dan Brown's lightweight but still entertaining novel 'The Da Vinci Code.
Conspiracy theories have always been popular and various novels dealing with this theme have been very successful. Until recently most conspiracy theories seemed to involve political intrigue or extraterrestrial plots to take over the world. However a new trend seems to be developing, many authors are looking to the past and older conspiracies involving historical secret societies with religious or occult traditions are becoming favoured backgrounds for many stories. Of course Dan Brown is not the first to do this and 'The Da Vinci Code' does not have the impact, the literary credentials or witty style of Umberto Eco's much better 'Foucault's Pendulum', which deals with similar themes.
In the dark galleries and corridors of the Louvre museum in the middle of the night a deadly confrontation takes place between Silas an Albino monk and the academic and curator of the Louvre Jacques Saunière. Saunière is the holder of an ancient secret that the extreme Catholic organisation Opus Dei desperately wants in order to obtain a great source of power. Saunière is left to die but in a desperate bid to alert other to his life's purpose before it is too late, he uses his last moments to devise a complex code involving works of art, secret messages and even the position of his own corpse. This code he hopes will only be deciphered by Robert Langdon an academic and expert in religious symbolism in art who was due to meet with Saunière that very night and by Saunière's Granddaughter Sophie Neveu a cryptologist working with the French police. The plan is partly successful but Saunière did not count of the involvement of Fache the tenacious police chief investigating Saunière's murder who vehemently believes the coded clues to be proof of Langdon's guilt in Saunière's murder.
Thus begins a desperate race against time as Langdon and Sophie struggle to uncover Saunière's secret and keep it safely away from Opus Dei's fanatical henchmen while at the same time trying to evade capture by the French police.
WHAT I THOUGHT
Dan Brown provides us with an engaging, diverting thriller but little more. The story is clever, there are plenty of the obligatory twists and turns, the pacing is excellent, in short it is a real page-turner. However it is not a great book. The characterisation is sloppy and lacks depth, the two lead characters as well as Silas the Albino assassin are no more than literary clichés we have met this combination before in countless other mediocre thrillers. Brown's writing style is very accessible but is really just a mean to an end in order to tell the story rather than being a feature of the book that can be appreciated on it's own right. For me he failed to bring to life the locations and especially in the early part of the book I failed to get a sense of Paris or the great building and artworks that were being described. I expected to be engulfed in a dark gothic atmosphere while reading the story with its emphasis on secret religious ceremonies and ancient pagan rituals but this failed to materialise. There was little richness or depth to the text and at various points I was reminded of reading some of the better Dennis Wheatley occult novels often adapted by Hammer studios in the 60's.
The major selling point of the book is its use of the myth surrounding Da Vinci and other famous artists and the long stated belief that many of the leading lights of the Renaissance and Enlightenment such as Botticelli and Newton were members of secret societies. These societies or brotherhoods were believed to have access to powerful forces and that generations of followers have kept this information secret from people who would abuse this knowledge. Brown in the same way that Eco did before him manages to merge reality (or at least real 'myths') with fiction. Opus Dei, also described as the catholic Church's mafia, does exist. The real Opus Dei organisation has its headquarters in New York. The Priory of Sion historically believed to be a sinister hierarchy of a vast network of secret societies that together make up an international secret brotherhood also plays a central feature of the book. In history this brotherhood has often been connected to the Templars, The Masons, the Rosicrucian heretics and the Cathars heretics, their influence has been speculated to reach from these ancient times to the modern day. Brown even names some of his characters after historical figures like the Abbé Bérenger Saunière the priest of Rennes-le-Château and a supposed member of a secret society rumoured to have made an important but as yet unknown discovery of immense value within the church at the beginning of the last century.
In this respect Brown is certainly following in the footsteps of other like Umberto Eco that presented much the same conspiracy albeit with a masterful and witty twist in his superior 'Foucault's Pendulum'. For anyone familiar with these stories the background to 'The Da Vinci Code' will come as no surprise and while Brown manages to keep a sense of suspense throughout the novel the outcome and eventual revelations will not come as a great surprise to every reader.
Another aspect of the book, which I found unconvincing were the seemingly complex codes that our characters are faced with in order to unpick the mystery. To begin with Brown makes great use of noting the actual religious symbolism and hidden messages that are known to exist in many paintings by Da Vinci and others. Some of this I knew about before and some I did not but I believe that Brown has given us accurate accounts. I can't deny that Brown skilfully weaves these real life mysteries into his fiction but the problem for me came when Brown has to devise some secret codes for the purposes of the plot, to me they seemed too easy! Not necessarily for the reader but certainly for the characters that are supposed to be leading experts in the fields of symbolism and code breaking. Most of them amount to little more than anagrams and number sequences, you'd think that the people involved would have had a little more imagination.
The Da Vinci code has been a massive best seller across the world and I can see why. It is a good read. It is essentially a gripping thriller with an unusual twist of an often tried genre. It is a very lightweight read which will be accessible to most readers. Some of the chapter are only a couple of pages long so it is ideal for dipping into at odd moments of the day. Saying that 'The Da Vinci Code' is a great book to read while on a beach holiday or on along train journey would probably be doing it justice. It won't be a book that you return to again and again and after the initial thrill it is eminently forgettable. What it might do is inspire some readers to investigate a little further the myths and supposed secret societies that are at the core of the story. This is a fascinating subject purely because there is so much speculation and so little factual evidence. Obviously for a more in depth look at these theories and conspiracies there are better non-fictional accounts you could read. If you are looking for a more challenging and ultimately more rewarding fictional story that covers the same ground as this book but in a more eloquent and clever way then I again have to direct you to Umberto Eco's ingenious 'Foucault's Pendulum'. However if you want an easy to read mystery thriller with a slight difference that is a cut above the rest then the Da Vinci Code is certainly worth a try.
'The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown (Paperback 560 pages-Published by Corgi Adult ISBN: 0552149519) is available from Amazon.co.uk for £5.59 (+p&p). For more information about the facts behind the story you could try Simon Cox's 'Cracking the Da Vinci Code' or Martin Lunn's 'Da Vinci Code Decoded'.