LITERARY REVIEW

Thinking person's thriller

POPULAR FICTION

Thinking person's thriller

THE Da Vinci Code gives new meaning to blurbs like "unputdownable", "riveting" and "racy". This book is all that in a very literal sense — not just in a manner of speaking — and it is intelligent and provocative. How ever did Dan Brown manage both? He makes it look easy but it is really storytelling taken to new heights. It reads like a thinking person's Robert Ludlum thriller, replete with secrets, riddles, secret societies, paranoia and conspiracy. But its chief delight lies in its unLudlum-like style and subject: a precise, uncluttered narrative about a contemporary quest for the Holy Grail. Conspiracy buffs will swallow the book in a gulp — it purports to be about nothing less than uncovering the true, secret and hidden history of Jesus Christ! What is revealed has a ring of truth to it (otherwise it wouldn't be convincing or enjoyable) but that doesn't mean it is true. The Da Vinci Code is really an alternate history of Christ — for the reader to ponder over or shun. I found myself believing and not believing.

Brown taps into several centuries of alternate Christian history (the Church would call it heresy) that has been doing the rounds in conspiracy literature (often in paperback) and comes up with an ingeniously plotted thriller full of riddles and puzzles that the reader can work on along with the book's two heroes — Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, and Sophie Neveu, a brilliant cryptologist. The curator of the Louvre Museum is murdered because he holds the only key to a millennium-old secret that could shatter Christian faith and shake the Catholic Church. Langdon and Sophie realise that he has left them several clues carefully hidden or disguised that they must crack in order to unravel an ancient secret. And all the clues seem to point to the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci!

The Da Vinci Code has become a sensation since its publication. It breaks new ground as a thriller for the way it cleverly and artfully combines research, suspense, history (or psuedo-history) religion and mythology. However, it isn't one of those complex, literary historical thrillers that can be savoured for its brilliant writing. But as a thriller it entertains like few thrillers have — virtually every chapter ends with a new and shocking revelation. The twists compel you to keep turning the pages because they are pieces of a jigsaw that is slowly beginning to take shape on the page. And this is where Dan Brown has triumphed over every other thriller writer: he shows rather than tells. Using actual paintings like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Brown deciphers hidden codes tucked away inside these great art works by Da Vinci himself. Codes that are plain to see once an expert has pointed them out to us. The book is enormous fun if you actually sit with a reproduction (preferably a detailed one) of The Last Supper beside you as you read it. What Langdon and Sophie discover are not their discoveries, Brown is quick to tell us, but are secrets that have been well documented by art experts over the years. The Da Vinci Code is also a most unusual celebration of the sacred feminine. I mean, imagine coming across a theme like the sacred feminine in a thriller! Thoroughly fascinating.

The same cannot be said for the new Lincoln Rhymes thriller, The Vanished Man. In fact, very little can be said about the new Jeffrey Deaver. Fans of the series should forgive me — I was never taken with Rhyme. And liking or disliking a mystery series depends on how you feel about its detective-hero. Once you are sympathetic to the detective in question, you can forgive the mystery most of its shortcomings. Most readers will have met quadriplegic forensic criminologist Lincoln Rhymes in his film debut, "The Bone Collector". The Vanished Man features a killer who is a master magician. Rhymes and his partner Amelia Sachs must see through his tricks — "see beyond the smoke and mirrors" — before he makes his victims vanish in diabolic ways. The Da Vinci Code, with its lightning pace and original plot, had spoilt me so much, I found myself plodding through The Vanished Man, wishing that this thriller, that all thrillers would be as enthralling as The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Doubleday, p. 454, price not stated.

The Vanished Man, Jeffrey Deaver, Simon and Schuster, p.416, price not stated.

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