I am apparently the only person in my entire circle of human acquaintance who liked “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.
Many readers I respect, even including a fellow LitKicks staffer, hate this book with a passion. It probably doesn’t help that the author became extremely rich by writing this interesting but aggravating and highly commercial book.
I understand why many people who take either literature or history seriously dislike this book. I know about the many historical flaws, such as the fact that the title itself is an error. The artist was known as Leonardo — “Da” means from, Vinci was his home, and nobody called him “Da Vinci”.
I am also aware that the prose style is dumbed down. There aren’t many words here that haven’t appeared on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood”. Brown pulls out cliches that most high school students are too good for — I’m not sure if he actually describes somebody as “white as a ghost”, but that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Still, I liked this book a lot. It grabbed my attention from page one, and it will grab anybody else’s. The basic idea is that a Merovingian princess, and a distant relative of Jesus Christ, walks among us. A variety of bureaucrats, criminals, academics and mad monks scheme to either conceal or reveal this secret.
It’s a tough premise to sell, but the book mainly works if you suspend your critical thinking and go along for the ride. Personally, I don’t even care if a relative of Jesus walks among us. It wouldn’t really affect my life much either way. As I turned these pages, I only cared who was going to get stabbed next, or what the latest secret code meant, or whether or not the hero was going to finally make out with Sophie Neveu.
Also, the book kept making me remember scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is a good thing for a book to do.
Matthew Pearl’s “The Dante Club” is another recent hit book in the “Da Vinci Code” vein, although this novel has a more intellectual flavor. It’s 1865 in Boston and Cambridge, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is presiding over a literary salon that includes James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They have all fallen in love with the works of Dante, the classic Italian poet, and are particularly obsessed by his “Inferno”, a dark work that narrates the particulars of Hell in vivid detail.
The only problem is, somebody else in Boston is also apparently obsessed with Dante, because the scenes of torture and punishment described in the “Inferno” are being carried out all over town. On real people. The police are clueless, so “The Dante Club” sets out to catch the real killer.
Matthew Pearl is a better writer than Dan Brown. He knows how to make words dance, whereas Dan Brown’s words seem to be doing the hokey-pokey at best. However, “The Dante Club” is distinctly weaker than “Da Vinci Code” in terms of plot and, yes, believability. As I turned the pages of “The Dante Club”, I kept finding myself simply muttering … “What?” Like, why don’t the aged poets just talk to the police, for God’s sake? And, how can a man be buried underground with his feet on fire and not feel somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that he is buried underground (the poor guy only seems to be upset about his feet being on fire)? Finally, why, why, why does Oliver Wendell Holmes have to leave the others and run upstairs in his underwear?
The book improves by the end. We discover why the author set the novel in 1865, because Boston is teeming with shell-shocked Civil War Veterans, and when the detective-poets realize their murderer is likely to be among these walking wounded, the book begins to recall the gritty realism of “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr or “The Tree of Life” by Hugh Nissenson.
Still, I don’t think it’s fair that “Da Vinci Code” gets criticized while this book gets a free ride. It’s good brain food and it will teach you a few things about Dante. But, in the end, the plot doesn’t pass inspection. Dan Brown obviously worked hard to think through the motivations of each of the characters in his book, so that “The Da Vinci Code” finally fits together like an intricate puzzle. As for Matthew Pearl, however, you just have to wonder what the hell kind of Scooby Doo meets Sherlock Holmes visits Encyclopedia Brown saturday morning cartoon he fell asleep in front of the morning he came up with his whole idea.
To sum it all up: I give “The Dante Code” four Scooby Snacks out of five, and “The Da Vinci Club” gets five. I’d like to know what you think about these books, if you’ve read either of them. If not, I’d like to hear what you think about the entire genre of imagined historical fiction.