What if a secret society possessed indisputable proof that Christianity in general—and the Catholic Church in particular—are built on historical error? To what extremes might zealous defenders of the faith go to find and destroy such potentially catastrophic evidence? These are the premises that set Dan Brown's absorbing new novel, The Da Vinci Code, in motion and then send it pinballing through a labyrinth of intricate schemes, sidetracks and deceptions.
Threaded through the story are plot-related codes and cryptograms that impel the reader to brainstorm with the protagonists, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (introduced in Angels & Demons) and French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu. An after-hours murder at the Louvre swirls these two strangers into the middle of an ongoing combat between the Priory of Sion, a shadowy order that dates back to the Crusades, and Opus Dei, a relatively new bastion of Catholic conservatism.
"I first learned of [Leonardo] Da Vinci's affiliation with the Priory of Sion when I was studying art history at the University of Seville," Brown says in a telephone interview from his home in New Hampshire. "One day, the professor showed us a slide of The Last Supper and began to outline all the strange anomalies in the painting. My awareness of Opus Dei came through an entirely different route and much later in my life. After studying the Vatican to write Angels & Demons, I became interested in the secrecy of the Vatican and some of the unseen hierarchy. Through that, I also became interested in Opus Dei and met some of the people in it."
While the characters and storylines of The Da Vinci Code are manifestly his own contrivances, Brown stresses that all the contextual details about history, biography, location and art are true. "One of the aspects that I try very hard to incorporate in my books is that of learning," he says. "When you finish the book—like it or not—you've learned a ton. I had to do an enormous amount of research [for this book]. My wife is an art historian and a Da Vinci fanatic. So I had a leg up on a lot of this, but it involved numerous trips to Europe, study at the Louvre, some in-depth study about the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei and about the art of Da Vinci."
Weighty as it is, Brown's scholarship never slows down the sizzling action. Robert and Sophie stay on the run at a breathless pace as menacing characters pop up in their flight path like silhouettes in a shooting gallery. Unlike a conventional mystery, in which clues become clear only in hindsight, many of the clues here are presented as such: a dying murder victim who arranges his body a particular way, a slip of paper with a phrase scribbled on it that may be a light-shedding anagram, a line of seemingly random numbers.
"For some reason, I was a good math student," Brown says, explaining his involvement with codes and symbols. "And language came easily. Cryptology and symbology are really fusions of math and language. My father is a well-known mathematician. I grew up around codes and ciphers. In The Da Vinci Code, there's a flashback where Sophie recalls her grandfather creating this treasure hunt through the house for a birthday present. That's what my father did for us."
Beyond spinning a good yarn within a richly factual context, Brown admits to yet another aim. "I am fascinated with the gray area between right and wrong and good and evil. Every novel I've written so far has explored that gray area." He reveals that his next novel will deal with "the oldest and largest secret society on earth" and with "the secret history of our nation's capital."
Brown concedes that turning Christianity's most fiercely held beliefs into fictional fodder may spark some controversy. But he says it's a risk worth taking. "I worked very, very hard to make the book fair to all parties. Yes, it's explosive. I think there will be people for whom this book will be—well, 'offensive,' may be too strong a word. But it will probably raise some eyebrows."