Spinning a Thriller From the Louvre
By JANET MASLIN
he word for “The Da Vinci Code” is a rare invertible palindrome. Rotated 180 degrees on a horizontal axis so that it is upside down, it denotes the maternal essence that is sometimes linked to the sport of soccer. Read right side up, it concisely conveys the kind of extreme enthusiasm with which this riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller can be recommended.
That word is wow.
The author is Dan Brown (a name you will want to remember). In this gleefully erudite suspense novel, Mr. Brown takes the format he has been developing through three earlier novels and fine-tunes it to blockbuster perfection. Not since the advent of Harry Potter has an author so flagrantly delighted in leading readers on a breathless chase and coaxing them through hoops.
The first book by this onetime teacher, the 1998 “Digital Fortress,” had a foxy heroine named Susan Fletcher who was the National Security Agency’s head cryptographer. The second, “Deception Point,” involved NASA, a scientific ruse in the Arctic and Rachel Sexton, an intelligence analyst with a hairdo “long enough to be sexy, but short enough to remind you she was probably smarter than you.”
With “Angels and Demons,” Mr. Brown introduced Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of art history and religious symbology who is loaded with “what his female colleagues referred to as an `erudite’ appeal.” No wonder: the new book finds the enormously likable Langdon pondering antimatter, the big-bang theory, the cult of the Illuminati and a threat to the Vatican, among other things. Yet this is merely a warm-up for the mind-boggling trickery that “The Da Vinci Code” has in store.
Consider the new book’s prologue, set in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. (This is the kind of book that notices that this one gallery’s length is three times that of the Washington Monument.) It embroils a Caravaggio, an albino monk and a curator in a fight to the death. That’s a scene leaving little doubt that the author knows how to pique interest, as the curator, Jacques Saunière, fights for his life.
Desperately seizing the painting in order to activate the museum’s alarm system, Saunière succeeds in buying some time. And he uses these stolen moments — which are his last — to take off his clothes, draw a circle and arrange himself like the figure in Leonardo’s most famous drawing, “The Vitruvian Man.” And to leave behind an anagram and Fibonacci’s famous numerical series as clues.
Whatever this is about, it is enough to summon Langdon, who by now, he blushes to recall, has been described in an adoring magazine article as “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed.” Langdon’s latest manuscript, which “proposed some very unconventional interpretations of established religious iconography which would certainly be controversial,” is definitely germane.
Also soon on the scene is the cryptologist Sophie Neveu, a chip off the author’s earlier prototypes: “Unlike the waifish, cookie-cutter blondes that adorned Harvard dorm room walls, this woman was healthy with an unembellished beauty and genuineness that radiated a striking personal confidence.” Even if he had not contrived this entire story as a hunt for the Lost Sacred Feminine essence, women in particular would love Mr. Brown.
With Leonardo as co-conspirator, since his life and work were so fraught with symbols and secrets, Mr. Brown is off to the races. Google away: you may want to investigate the same matters that Langdon and Agent Neveu pursue as they tap into a mother lode of religious conspiracy theory. The Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar and the controversial Vatican prelature called Opus Dei are all invoked, as is the pentacle, the Divine Proportion, the strange sex rites glimpsed in the film “Eyes Wide Shut” and the Holy Grail. If you think the Grail is a cup, then Mr. Brown — drawing upon earlier controversial Grail theories involving 19th-century discoveries by a real Saunière — would like you to think again.
As in his “Angels and Demons,” this author is drawn to the place where empirical evidence and religious faith collide. And he creates a bracing exploration of this realm, one that is by no means sacrilegious, though it sharply challenges Vatican policy. As Langdon and Sophie follow clues planted by Leonardo, they arrive at some jaw-dropping suppositions, some of which bring “The Da Vinci Code” to the brink of overkill. But in the end Mr. Brown gracefully lays to rest all the questions he has raised.
The book moves at a breakneck pace, with the author seeming thoroughly to enjoy his contrivances. Virtually every chapter ends with a cliffhanger: not easy, considering the amount of plain old talking that gets done. And Sophie and Langdon are sent on the run, the better to churn up a thriller atmosphere. To their credit, they evade their pursuers as ingeniously as they do most everything else.
When being followed via a global positioning system, for instance, it is smart to send the sensor flying out a 40-foot window and lead pursuers to think you have done the same. Somehow the book manages to reconcile such derring-do with remarks like, “And did you know that if you divide the number of female bees by the number of male bees in any beehive in the world, you always get the same number?”
“The Da Vinci Code” is breezy enough even to make fun of its characters’ own cleverness. At one point Langdon is asked by his host whether he has hidden a sought-after treasure carefully enough. “Actually,” Langdon says, unable to hide his grin, “that depends on how often you dust under your couch.”