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Common Code

  The Da Vinci Code
Dan Brown
Doubleday, 2003, Anchor, 2006
Rating: 3.6
 

Posted: May 11, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Usually, reviewing a book released three years ago -- even one of the most widely read and controversial books in recent memory -- would smack of irrelevance. But if there's an exception to that rule of thumb, The Da Vinci Code is it. Dan Brown's 2003 thriller has spawned a mini-industry of novels concerning the Knights Templar, secret codes and/or Leonardo da Vinci (including Javier Sierra's recent The Secret Supper, which the author claims was well underway when Code was released). And that's not counting the books that seek to debunk claims made in Brown's best-selling phenomenon.

And then, of course, there's the imminent release of Ron Howard's film adaptation, and the recent paperback release timed to coincide with same. With public attention refocusing on The Da Vinci Code, there's no better time to consider the book from which sprang such a large part of the current zeitgeist -- if only so that those who've never gotten around to reading it can sound plausibly informed at those discussions around the proverbial water cooler. So relax, latecomers and procrastinators, and follow this advice. Lean confidently against the aforementioned cooler, cock your head at a confident angle, and, affecting a bit of a shrug, simply say: "I don't know. The Da Vinci Code is okay in a beach-read kind of way, but it hardly seems worth all the fuss."

Such a statement could provoke strong reactions, but stand strong. As engaging as The Da Vinci Code is -- and it is -- it suffers from some pretty glaring flaws. To start with, for a thriller, it's not exactly overflowing with urgency. Oh, it starts promisingly enough. The early chapters are fueled by a standard man-on-the-run scenario: Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon, on business in Paris, is forced to clear his name when intimidating police Captain Bezu Fache suspects him of the grisly murder of Louvre curator Jacques Saunière.

But once Langdon -- with the aid of comely cryptologist Sophie Neuve, who swoops in to rescue him -- puts some distance between himself and Fache, the bulk of the drama shifts to the pair's attempt to decipher Saunière's cryptic final message, and find an important artifact he places in their care. Saunière, it turns out, was Sophie's grandfather, and a member of a secret society known as the Priory of Sion, dedicated to safeguarding a secret that could bring modern Catholicism to its knees. Through a series of clever codes, he has imparted that knowledge to his granddaughter, with an urgent post-script -- "Find Robert Langdon" -- pointing her toward the one man who can help her make sense of it.

Sadly, that crucial early tension soon disperses, and much of the drama that follows is more cerebral in nature, as Langdon and Sophie puzzle out clues. In fact, that cerebral air is the book's biggest drawback. Langdon piques the reader's interest as he slowly unspools tidbits about the Holy Grail, the Knights Templar, Mary Magdalene and the Catholic Church, but his bottomless well of knowledge about these subjects inevitably means that we watch from a distance as certain pieces of the puzzle just suddenly occur to him, and he dutifully reveals it to the rest of us. It's one thing for the reader to try to solve the puzzle along with the protagonist, and another to watch Sherlock Holmes piece together clues the reader overlooks. It's another thing entirely to wait for the protagonist to reveal his answers based on information we're not privy to.

All of this also means that every few chapters, Langdon -- later aided by eccentric Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, who aids the pair in tracking down Saunière's posthumous treasure hunt -- doles out snippets of history and lore. It's fascinating stuff, especially if you've never read, say, Holy Blood, Holy Grail or even Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's comic-book series Preacher (throw those titles around the office and wait for the blank stares). But of necessity, all momentum lurches to a grinding halt for pages on end. By the time the murderous monk Silas, carrying out the will of a crafty behind-the-scenes figure named The Teacher, confronts Langdon, Sophie and Teabing, it's hardly enough to get things back up and running.

Thankfully, the suspense does eventually crank back up again, as Silas receives aid from an unexpected source, and Langdon races to beat The Teacher to the location of Saunière's big secret. But The Da Vinci Code never regains the pulse-quickening pace of the first hundred or so pages, and the last quarter or so of the book is bogged down by flashbacks that fill in a lot of questions and clear away various red herrings. And a largely anticlimactic sequence at the end doesn't help matters; it's also far too pat.

Ultimately, while it's a pleasant page-turner (especially in the early stages), more is explained in The Da Vinci Code, Agatha Christie-style, than is healthy for an alleged thriller -- especially one that tops the 300-page mark. Whether the movie suffers from the same problems, only time will tell. In the meantime, you're fairly up to speed on one of the most talked-about books of the last decade not written by J.K. Rowling. Except for one thing: Being averse to spoilers, we haven't delved here into the exact nature of the book's supposedly earth-shattering secrets involving Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, etc., except to point out that they're not all that startling for anyone who's read other works on the subject. There, alas, you're on your own. After all, we want to save some surprises -- even for a mega-popular book that's three years old.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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