A couple of years ago I listened to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code on audiobook to see what all the fuss was about. On the one hand, consensus on the internet seems to be that Brown’s story is shallow, his prose horrendous, and his book at best a guilty pleasure. On the other, Donald Maass cites The Da Vinci Code in his “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” as having several strengths writers can learn from.* So my expectations going into the book were somewhat mixed.
*On the third hand, Maass also cites Left Behind in that workbook, so he’s not infallible. On the fourth hand, to be fair, I really should actually readLeft Behind before making judgments about its quality. Just because the theology is terrible and some people on the internet say the writing is awful, I can’t know for sure until I’ve seen for myself.
The following post contains major spoilers for The Da Vinci Code.
The Da Vinci Code tells the story of American symbologist Robert Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu, as they struggle to solve a puzzle left them by Sophie’s recently-murdered grandfather, Jacques Saunière. Hounded by the French police, and followed by Saunière’s real killer, Langdon and Sophie must unravel a series of puzzles which will lead them to uncovering the greatest secret in history.
This was a good book, and I’m not ashamed to say it. In fact, I’ll go even further: The Da Vinci Code is somewhere between a good book and a great book. At least, it’s somewhere between a good story and a great story.
I know what people say about Brown’s prose, but that’s the sort of thing I can usually skip over, especially when I’m listening to the story on audio. I’ve taken a look at some criticism of The Da Vinci Code’s writing since I read it, and yeah, it’s pretty bad. Hilariously so if you have the right mindset, maddeningly so if you don’t. However, I still maintain that if, like me, you can get past the wretched prose, you’re in for a very good story.
Dan Brown takes a plot that could easily be cliché and dull, and plays it well. Ever found yourself saying “There’s a good story—maybe even a great story—in there, if only the author had brought out its potential”? Brown does exactly that.
The plot is fun and gripping, but what’s a good plot without good characters? Langdon and Sophie are engaging enough, reasonably good thriller heroes. But I often find that a much better indicator of a story’s quality is the way it treats its supporting cast and its villains, and it is here that Brown truly breaks the mold.
A less talented author would simply have depicted Silas and probably Bishop Aringarosa as religious fanatics, trying to hold onto their church, and the power that it represents, at whatever cost. Brown does not succumb to this shortcut. Instead, he presents Silas’ and Aringarosa’s devotion to Jesus’ doctrines of love and pacifism, and Silas’ struggle to reconcile that pacifism with his own use of violence to protect the church—and the greater good it represents, to him.
Brown, while not necessarily agreeing with the Catholic Church, is at least sympathetic and understanding, pointing out that the terrible things it did and does make sense to the church, if not to its victims.
Best of all is his treatment of Sir Leigh Teabing, the Teacher. Personally, I never saw his status as the main villain coming, which is another testament to Brown’s storytelling skill. I had Teabing written off as the lovable, quirky side character who I would be very upset about when he inevitably died sometime later. Rather like Talaan from Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die.
Boy, was I wrong. At the moment of the reveal, though, my heart sank. As soon as I found out that Teabing was the Teacher, I knew it would also turn out that everything I’d known about him had been a lie, that the delightful, eccentric old man I’d grown so fond of over the past half dozen cassettes had been only an act, a mask to disguise Teabing’s own petty, selfish desire for power (via the Holy Grail). Happens even in good murder-mysteries. All. The. Time.
Wrong again. Turns out, he was almost exactly as advertised. True, he was willing to be much more ruthless in the pursuit of what he considers the greater good than I expected, but the character we saw up to the reveal was pretty much the character as he truly was. By the end of the final confrontation, I actually felt kinda bad for the guy—hey, I’ve sympathized with “heroes” who were a lot less noble in pursuing their goals.
Brown does equally well characterizing his police characters, Bezu Fache and Lieutenant Collet.
I don’t know whether to call foul on Brown for his presentation of Fache in the book’s second half: it’s like Brown wants to use him as a red herring, but also wants to cover his ass by providing the alternate explanation before the reveal. When I first listened to the book, I thought he was trying to keep people guessing in scenes which did not include Fache personally, but had given up and all but admitted that Fache was the Teacher in the ones which did include him, which really ticked me off. Now, of course, I know that was all a smokescreen, but I still feel that practically telling the audience “Fache is the Teacher” (while still leaving enough wiggle room to back out of it after the reveal) in some scenes, and then acting like “no you’re still supposed to be guessing” in others is not playing fair with the reader. This is annoying, but I hardly think it ruins the story.
I have a few other quibbles with the book, as I’m sure everyone does with practically any story, but I don’t think they’re worth going into here.
The last point I’m going to address is the alternate history Brown presents in the book. It’s improbable, but it makes for a pretty good story. I’m given to understand that Brown has claimed that all the historical information in the book is accurate, even going so far as to put a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of the book (which didn’t make it into the audio version). It’s at this point that he oversteps himself, as much of that information is inaccurate or at least hotly disputed. To my knowledge, Brown has cited no further evidence to back up his assertions. While this certainly does not speak well of Brown, I do not see that it detracts from the quality of the book itself.
More serious in that regard is the fact that one of his more villainous characters, Silas, is also an albino. As already mentioned, he’s not a card-carrying evil albino—in fact, I found him quite sympathetic—but that doesn’t necessarily make his presentation a-ok. I’ve heard there may be other issues concerning the depiction of the Catholic Church (or at least Opus Dei) and a couple European nationalities, and I could completely believe it, but I’m afraid I’m not in a good position to make an informed call on any of that.
Still a wonderfully engaging read, sometimes thought-provoking, always entertaining. If you can get by the lamentable prose, The Da Vinci Code is a fair good treat.
Since writing this initial piece, I have also read (read: listened to) both the original Angels and Demons and the second sequel, The Lost Symbol, and some of Brown’s charm has worn off as a result. First, the folks at ferretbrain pointed out some really awful racial politics in the first book which I confess to missing completely when I first read it, but which I cannot at all disagree with. In this regard, at least, Brown appears to have improved with time, in that Silas in Da Vinci is a lot more sympathetic than the Arabic assassin in Angels, while the villain in Symbol is straight Caucasian. Progress, of a sort.
I’ve also found that once you read one Dan Brown book, spotting the villain before the reveal becomes easier and easier. I figured out the one in Angels midway through, and I had the one in Symbol nailed down as soon as his backstory was introduced. With each additional book, I grow decreasingly impressed with Brown’s powers of misdirection.
His characterization is also less impressive to me now. Both Angels and Symbol have some pretty neat characterization, but I wouldn’t throw around words like “spectacular” in that regard. The sympathetic villain in Angels is pretty interesting, but not, for me, as enjoyable as Teabing in Da Vinci, while Moloch in Symbol is just a thoroughly nasty piece of work.
Symbol also bugged me in a number of other ways. Much of the story was still pretty exciting, but a substantial amount of it was dreary, irritating, and at one point even sickening (an over-detailed description of Moloch drowning a supporting character from the victim’s point-of-view).
I still have some fondness for the series, but I wouldn’t call either Angels and Demons or The Lost Symbol a great story, and I probably wouldn’t call them good stories either, which makes me seriously question my original assessment of The Da Vinci Code. But, since I’m not going to go back and re-read it any time soon, this is where my thoughts remain for the present. Later, everyone.