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For some time, I’ve felt that I might be the only person left in the world who hadn’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Though it was released roughly 20 months ago, all I knew about the novel, until recently, was that it is immensely popular and has inspired countless people to visit the Louvre and Saint-Sulpice Church. So during my Thanksgiving vacation in London, I broke down, went to an Oxford Street bookstore and purchased a copy. In huge spurts, I read the novel in its entirety over the period of a few hours. When I finished, I have to say that I was rather disappointed.
Though I found the book to be a suspenseful page-turner, I was distracted and subsequently annoyed by ill-researched references to Paris’ landscape and architecture – particularly because at the beginning of the book, Brown flatly states that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Surely he realized that people who live in Paris or know it well would read his book. Why wouldn’t he (or perhaps more importantly, his editors) take the time to do some basic fact checking, if only to back up his own claim of accuracy? Was he simply negligent in this regard, or did he think that deliberate sloppiness would incite commentary that would fuel sales?
Much of the action of the first several chapters takes place in and around the Louvre. (There are 105 chapters in the book, not counting the prologue and epilogue.) The murder of Jacques Saunière, curator of the Louvre, occurs in the Grande Galerie of the Denon Wing. Brown gets some key bits of information about artwork and architecture wrong in this section of his thriller. He sites the Salle des Etats as the room where the Mona Lisa is displayed, even though Leonardo’s masterpiece has been in the Salle Rosa since 2001, two years prior to the publication of the novel. Granted, the Mona Lisa was originally located in the Salle des Etats, and will be placed there again when the room reopens in 2005. But basic fact checking might have inspired him to refer to this temporary relocation, and perhaps even build the plot around it.
Brown describes the WC where his protagonists fake an escape as being located at the end of the Grande Galerie, which he places at the westernmost end of the Denon wing. He describes the facilities as having a window that overlooks the north-south thoroughfare of the Place du Carrousel. But neither the Grande Galerie nor the Denon wing come to an end at this point. Rather, the Grande Galerie extends over the arches that span the road that Brown describes and ends beyond the thoroughfare. The Denon wing continues westward beyond the Porte des Lions and ends at avenue du GÃ©nÃ©ral Lemonnier.
The reader will discover another error in Brown’s description of Leonardo’s La Vierge aux Rochers. A visit to the Louvre’s web site reveals that this painting measures 1.99 meters in height, or roughly 6½ feet, not the 5 feet that Brown states in his text. So much for accuracy in descriptions of architecture and artwork – perhaps Brown should have stated that the architecture and artwork that he mentions actually exist, but that his descriptions of them are laced with whimsical fancy.
Brown’s depiction of Paris’ geographical lay-out is also quite faulty. In Chapter 3, we find that in leaving the Ritz Hotel, two of his characters drive south past the Opera house to reach Place Vendôme. In reality, the Ritz is located at Place Vendôme, so that all one has to do to get to the Place is to step out the front door. Then there is an egregious passage indicating that they travel south from Place Vendôme, cross rue de Rivoli and enter the Jardin des Tuileries. They follow a “wooded” section of rue de Castiglione, and in “angling west” through the garden they eventually reach the Arc du Carrousel. Never mind the fact that the garden is not open to automobile traffic and that if you head west once inside the gates, you move away from the Arc du Carrousel! The novel is littered with errors such as these, and one can find similar (though fewer) inaccuracies in Brown’s portrayal of London’s topography.
My other objection to this book is the author’s sparse development of his characters. We learn a fair amount about Jacques Saunière, the first murder victim, but less about his granddaughter and Brown’s protagonist, Sophie Neveu. We are told about her relationship with Saunière and why she has such a keen mind for cryptography, but get no information about the personal life and habits of this beautiful, 32-year old woman. I assume that those who read Brown’s novel Angels and Demons will have insight into the main character Robert Langdon, since Brown introduced him in this book (which I have not read). He gives you practically nothing to go on in The Da Vinci Code. We learn the most about the pious, but duped, albino monk Silas, and sadly, he is one of the “bad guys”.
By the end of the first third of “The Code”, I gave up hope of getting any further background information on key characters. The continual series of cliff-hangers began to wear on me after a while because I didn’t have enough information about the characters to make me care about what happened to them. And at the end of the book, I found the revelation of the identity of the mastermind of the scheme and the motive behind it to be less than satisfying.
I believe that the fabric of fiction is best stretched on a solid frame. In my opinion, Brown was not sufficiently mindful of the integrity of his framework – his settings and his characters – and thereby undermined his story. It is the settings of The Da Vinci Code that give the novel much of its appeal, and an accurate portrayal of Paris would have rendered this novel much more enjoyable to those who know and love the city and its most prestigious museum. It would seem that Brown intended the statements touted as “fact” at the beginning of the book to be yet another part of the fiction. As for the characters, if each of them had been developed to the extent that Brown developed the personage of his first victim, I would have found the story to be much more compelling.
One thing is certain. If you have more than a passing knowledge of Paris and the Louvre, you will enjoy reading this book with red pen in hand.