I finally got round to reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, since I was on holiday staying with someone who owned a copy. Where does a historian start in describing such tosh? The diaries of Mary Magdalene, Walt Disney as second Leonardo, English as a pure language uninfluenced by Latin or just King’s College London as having amazing religious databases? (I’ve just finished my PhD there – no, they don’t have anything like in the book). It’s no wonder that entire books have been written pointing out the inaccuracies in a novel claimed to be based on fact.
I won’t repeat those points, but just stick to the problem of the implausibility of the fiction. Specifically, the villainous historian Sir Leigh Teabing. What member of the British upper classes is called Leigh Teabing? (I’ve seen suggestions that the name is actually a partial anagram of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh from whose book (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) Dan Brown cribbed most of his ‘facts’. This sounds more plausible than that someone could invent the name from scratch). Teabing is also a ‘British Royal Historian’ (there’s no such post) and was knighted for writing an ‘extensive history of the House of York’ (Historians don’t get knighted simply for writing that sort of thing, or everyone would be researching English royalty).
Teabing speaks a language which bears only a passing resemblance to the Queen’s English. The best example is when he comments to Sophie: ‘I schooled just down the road [from Royal Holloway] at Oxford’ and then adds ‘Of course I also applied to Harvard as my safety school.’ An English person wouldn’t talk about being ‘schooled’ when he meant university or about a ‘safety school’. Oxford isn’t just down the road from Egham and it would be very unusual to apply for US universities as well as UK ones. (I also suspect if you didn’t get into Oxford, you wouldn’t be likely to get into Harvard). Four or possibly five errors in one short passage.
At first I thought it was just laziness that Dan Brown hadn’t bothered to produce a vaguely plausible English historian. There are eccentric upper class British historians (until recently King’s had Professor Conrad Russell on the staff, who was also an earl). Alternatively Brown could have made Teabing a fabulously rich man who was an obsessive amateur Grail enthusiast. But then I realised that creating even a stereotyped character wasn’t the point. Teabing isn’t a character, he’s a set of useful characteristics arbitrarily placed into one person. So he’s an academic historian (to give credibility to the Grail story), but also fabulously wealthy (so he can smuggle Robert and Sophie out of France) and an establishment figure (so he can get out of trouble at Westminster Abbey) and on crutches (so he can disarm an unsuspecting Silas)
So why does the book work? (I read through to the end, so it does sufficiently). I think because the thriller element is fast paced enough, at least for most of the book, to enable you to skip the implausibilities. Teabing, for example, only comes in about halfway, by which time you’re likely to be hooked. A lot of the puzzles aren’t complex enough to hold up for any length of time (I spotted the mirror writing immediately), but they’re just tricky enough to intrigue the reader. The mix works adequately as a lowbrow version of The Name of the Rose.
As a thriller the book only really falls down at the end, when the villainous Teabing is defeated several chapters too early. For some reason, Dan Brown seems to have suffered a failure of nerve. In novels the long lost historic artefact (picture, book, documents etc) either has to be revealed to an amazed public or (more commonly) destroyed (as in The Name of the Rose, Michael Frayn’s Headlong etc). If the Grail documents don’t need to be revealed to have their effect, then what does it matter if they’re safe or not?
The copy I had also included a ‘bonus’ of the first pages of Dan Brown’s first book ‘Angels and Demons’. A mistake, I think because it confirms he’s just a one trick pony – the initial scenes are basically the same. (And another gloriously clunky bit of dialogue. Someone phones up Robert Langdon out of the blue to tell him about a murder and says ‘I’m a discrete particle physicist’. To which the snappy answer is surely: ‘Well you seem pretty indiscreet to me.’)