The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown

Read January 2004

The Da Vinci Code is something of a contradiction in terms: a middlebrow thriller. The story has enough to generate popular appeal, with such stock Indiana Jones-esque icons as the Holy Grail and the Knights Templar, denizens of that strange terrain where archeology meets the Renaissance Festival. Yet there is a layer of serious research that gives this book an additional edge, and it is just thoughtful enough to leave reasonable people questioning (at the very least, strengthening through inquiry) some of their religious beliefs. In that respect, this book's popularity is both remarkable and heartening.

In the story, the curator of the Louvre is found murdered, leaving clues to his death around his body. A professor of “symbology” (someone must have told the author that “semiotics” won't sell books) visiting Paris is asked to investigate the scene and help the police. He is soon joined by a cryptographer who had a personal connection to the dead curator. The story then takes many curious twists, following an investigation into works of art, secret societies, the early history of Christianity, and many small puzzles. To say more would be to give away some of the plot, and that would be unfortunate—this is a fun book and one I didn't regret reading. Indeed, if you plan to read the book and don't like being deprived of any twists, you may want to skip the rest of this review.

The biggest problem with the story is its excessive reliance on some fairly routine, but also overwrought, theories on the evolution of Christianity (Jesus was mortal, Mary was his wife, they had a family, and so forth). Most of the basic historical facts it narrates are fairly accurate, and some interpretation will not be news to skeptical readers (for more, read The Secular Web). The superstructure, however, launches into material on female workship that is perhaps more fitting of conspiracy theory Web sites (and indeed, the book uses its literary license to allege a massive conspiracy). The story focuses on events stemming from the Council of Nicea, but reduces Constantine to a mere operator who could have gone either way, pagan or Christian—even I found this position difficult to support (and Brown does little to justify it; was Constantine just faking it at Milvian Bridge?). It fails to discuss the many curious and controversial interpretations of Christianity that made the Council necessary, presenting events as if there were only two choices of which one won through misogyny. In fact, the male-female dualist position at the core of this story is itself fairly far-fetched, involving the Merovingian rulers of France not merely as historical figures but as mythical ones, recycling the theory that they were direct descendants of Jesus. And yet, curiously, the author goes nowhere nearly as far as a suitably irreligious reader, who might ask, why do any of the positions matter?

Along the way, Brown very ham-handedly grinds an axe with Opus Dei. He presents them in the most one-dimensional terms (and mind you, I don't view them in particularly two-dimensional terms myself), only to dispose of them near the end when they become inconvenient to the plot. One can't help but think his incorporation of them as a group about to lose recognition from the Vatican is wishful thinking, and since when did mystery novels include URLs for recovery support groups?

In general, the book doesn't wear its learning lightly. There doesn't seem to be much trivia that Brown left out, and in places it feels like an excerpt from The Book of Lists. Brown and his editor don't seem to be able to distinguish between texture and just excessive, boring, irrelevant or out-of-place detail. In that sense it shares a feel with the writing of Allen Kurzweil, but at least Kurzweil's prose is more sophisticated. There are some silly gaffs, such as the assumption that two people who have studied Da Vinci's works for decades would not instantly recognize his famous mirrored script (reproduced very nicely here). As one of the Bernoullis famously said of the anonymous solutions submitted by a person who figures repeatedly in this tale, Isaac Newton, “I recognize the lion by his paw!” Brown often uses narrative to educate his audience, but after a while he seems to lose interest in doing so cleverly. The very first word in the Prologue,

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery.

demonstrates a certain heavy-handedness that the prose never entirely loses. The chapters are kept short, sometimes very short, as if in anticipation of a screenplay.

All that said, I enjoyed reading this book. Of course, I don't read much fiction, much less thrillers, so it's all quite an event for me when I do. Still, I did enjoy thinking about most of the puzzles, and was sufficiently motivated when I saw Leonardo's script that I ran to my travel kit to flush out a little portable mirror while the protagonists were still mulling it over. I don't react that way to most books, so the story was clearly interesting enough to hold my attention; indeed, I spent a good part of two days doing nothing but reading this volume. This should explain something of the book's widespread appeal, and if that means it gets Christians to inquire a bit into their faith and wake up to some of its extremes, that can only be a good thing.

Thanks to the Fislers for getting me to read this book!