Encyclopedia Brown and the Holy Grail

Judging from the comments on amazon.com, Readers of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code fall into four categories. There are people who are utterly blown away by both the ideas and the writing, claiming that the book has really opened their eyes to the truth. There are those who say that while the ideas may not be overly convincing, it remains a stellar work of fiction — a good read. The third group is Christians (Catholics, mostly) who are outraged at the damnable lies perpetrated in the book regarding Jesus and the church. And then there’s the fourth group, wondering how this thing is a best-seller.

The ideas in it — the mystery and controversy — are absolutely nothing new. I don’t want to give away the central mystery of the thing, but it’s an age-old conspiracy that has been covered time and time again. In fact, most of it is lifted wholesale from a book that came out in the early 80s, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which was itself a best-seller. So we’re not treading any new ground here. And the case for it is incredibly flimsy. Dan Brown may have done scads of research, but if you research a ton of weak, woo-woo, kook-written books that all verify themselves by referring to each other, you’re not going to accomplish much.

In fact, it’s even strange that this is a mystery in the world of the book. It seems that every character except one already knows every detail of this mystery and accepts it as fact. It’s stated that there was a BBC special aired that revealed the whole thing (though there was enough outrage that it never aired in America). The only reason Sophie doesn’t already know the details of the mystery is because that gives Brown an excuse to explain it all to the reader.

But if the book were well-written, this could be overlooked. I don’t require my fictional works to be 100% accurate, even if they claim to be. Sadly, it’s not.

The characters are completely wooden. None of them describe any kind of significant arc. The experience they go through doesn’t change any of them to any great degree. There’s very little reason to care about what happens to any of them. In many ways they seem to have been rolled up like characters in a role-playing game, and even adorned with Quirks that add nothing to them and never come into play. Langdon is Claustrophobic (5 points) and Wears a Mickey Mouse Watch (1 point). Teabing is Crippled (15 points, -2 to Dexterity) and Eccentric (1 point), which was used to give him the Unlimited Wealth advantage. And poor, dear, Sophie, the only female character in a book that supposedly revels in goddess worship, has absolutely nothing to distinguish her, save her hair and eye color. The church has suppressed women to the point that they can’t even get a break in their own book. When Sophie isn’t the Ignorant Outsider used to explain all the esoteric concepts to the reader, she’s a Helpless Victim that is used as a hostage. Oh, and every now and then she gets to solve a puzzle. That’s nice.

The puzzles, incidentally, are a hoot. From simple anagrams that a team of cryptographers can’t crack to more elaborate single-substitution codes (A = Z, B = Y, etc.), the puzzles are sure to make even the thickest reader feel like a Mensa candidate (or at least marvel at the amazing mind of Dan Brown.) The funniest moment in the book, one where I actually said, out loud, “Oh for God’s sake!” was when the Harvard Phd, the Oxford-educated Grail scholar, and the professional cryptographer were all baffled by a mysterious writing that turns out to be English…only written backwards!

And the plot…a series of chases punctuated by lessons about the sacred feminine and puzzles, is full of twists and turns. There are dozens of shotguns on the walls, and rest assured they all go off…sometimes even more than two pages after their first appearance! The identity of the main bad guy only remains a mystery to anyone who’s never seen an episode of Scooby-Doo, and a “shocking” revelation towards the end that’s only been constantly telegraphed from the beginning of the book.

But the biggest lack of mystery of all is why this is a best-seller. I can’t believe people are saying “How could something so hokey and leaden dominate the best-seller list?” as though it bumped Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov for that spot. Shock of shocks! A poorly-written bunch of cack is on the best-seller list! Dan Brown’s written the ultimate best-seller: an airport novel that tries to fool the reader into thinking it’s an intellectual exercise. Why wouldn’t it do well? Write it on a sixth-grade level but advertise it like a doctoral thesis!

If you’re looking for a good conspiracy book, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a crackling adventure book, there are much better sources. If you’re even looking for a tepid investigation of a half-baked theory, there are still better books to get. If you haven’t already succumbed to the hype, give this one a pass and wait for the inevitable movie starring Harrison Ford as Langdon, Keira Knightly as Sophie, and Sean Connery as Teabing. (Heh, IMDB says it’s in 2005 and directed by Ron Howard. Enough said.)

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