Only Detect

DAN BROWN. The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Conspiracies are afoot, and these aren’t run-of-the-mill conspiracies of the sort that allegedly take down mere U.S. presidents. In fact, the fate of the Western world’s dominant religion is at stake. For two millennia, two institutions have vied to claim the true legacy of Jesus Christ, and now their largely secret struggle has erupted in the form of a quadruple homicide. The Catholic Church, with the ultraconservative modern sect Opus Dei as its vanguard, looms on one side; a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which traces its origins to the medieval Knights Templar and its mission to the time of the Crucifixion, huddles on the other. Caught between those mighty institutions is Robert Langdon, a professor of “symbology” at Harvard, who has come to Paris on what he had hoped would be a quiet scholarly visit. In the opening sequence of this tale, the French Judicial Police summon Langdon to the Louvre so that he can shed light on the outlandishly brutal murder of Jacques Saunière, head curator of the museum. (Three other killings occur at roughly the same time.) The scene crime is awash in blood—and in symbols. It doesn’t take a symbologist, however, to surmise that Saunière was a man who knew too much.

Might the same be true of Langdon? The Louvre episode, he quickly discerns, was one move in a grand and deadly game. Multiple parties are tangling over a fabulous quarry—the Holy Grail!—and Langdon has no choice but to join the fray. Clues to the meaning and location of that legendary object are said to appear in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, and that’s where the pseudo-discipline of symbology comes into play. With help from Sophie Neveu, a French cryptographer who happens to be the granddaughter of Saunière, Langdon follows the clues purportedly left by da Vinci (along with a welter of other puzzling signs) on a trail that leads from Paris to London and finally to a destination that may be the Grail’s final repository. The interlocking conspiracies that Langdon unearths along the way are as momentous as can be, casting doubt on the faith of billions, and they give heft to what is otherwise an old-fashioned quest saga.

Outraged critics have attacked this outrageously popular thriller for being riddled with errors and predicated on fraudulent sources. On that front, they are on firm ground: Brown claims more truth for his tale, and takes more creative license with history, than he really should. Yet many critics have also heaped scorn on Brown’s writing style, and much of that criticism is beside the point. His prose displays neither subtlety nor originality, but it’s eminently true to its purpose—which is to thrill. The standard that applies to high adventure differs from that of high literature, after all. Readers will learn little about the inner life of Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu, and they will care even less. But those who admire raw storytelling verve will find it in these pages.