Today I want to talk about the runaway, best-selling thriller called The Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, I have not read it. Fortunately, however, I am very close to someone who has read it, and so I asked her what it was like.
"It's rubbish," she said.
Then she added, generously: "But it's very readable."
Then she thought for a bit, and summed up her conclusions by saying: "Yes, I would say that it's readable rubbish."
"Is it well-written?" I persisted.
"If you think Jeffrey Archer writes well, then this is well written," she answered.
I have not read any Jeffrey Archer either, so I do not know what to think. But my interest in The Da Vinci Code was aroused by a report on Radio 4 from Caroline Wyatt, in Paris. The trouble, it seems, is that the author, Dan Brown, has set some of the book's action inside the grand Parisian church of Saint Sulpice, including the gruesome, though totally fictitious, murder of a nun.
And now, to the distress of the authorities of Saint Sulpice, American tourists have already started to arrive in numbers, demanding to be shown the spot where the murder took place.
The church has responded by putting up a notice, explaining to tourists that the events in the book did NOT take place. The tourists have responded by repeatedly stealing the notice.
The authorities are now gritting their teeth for a further invasion after the book has been filmed, and a possible sequel written.
Now, there is no point in being surprised at the way American tourists travel to the scene of the crime. We do it ourselves. When something is filmed in Britain at a stately home, the visiting figures at the house shoot up. I am not sure what the name of the village is where Last Of The Summer Wine is shot, but I believe that people throng there to see - see what? I don't know what they see, but they throng. When Notting Hill was released, there were any amount of tourists who turned up to see the bookshop where Hugh Grant worked, even though it didn't exist. I believe the bookshops which DID exist there did unusually good business.
What is all so very odd about this is that it represents a modern increase in superstition and gullibility. In the old days people used to flock to Canterbury Cathedral because St Thomas à Becket really had been gruesomely killed there, not because some best-seller had invented it. People visit the Tower of London, or Windsor Castle, or Stonehenge, not because they have featured in lurid works of fiction but because they really exist and things really happened there.
I am not sure when people first started to visit the scenes of fictional happenings - when Sherlock Holmes first appeared at 221b Baker Street, perhaps? - but it represents a modern impulse to be deluded which doesn't fit in too well with our image of ourselves as hard-nosed realists.
The best summing-up of this whole area of human belief came from the late Gavin Lyall, whom I once asked to review in Punch a book called The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Explained. Gavin said that the author of the book went into all the supposed disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle and explained them quite logically. It was, he said, a terrific read. It was also, he said, unlikely to sell well because, although people will flock to read books which promise Mystery, they will never flock to read the Mystery Explained. People, he said, like to be mystified and stay mystified.
(Coming soon: A look at why the Bible sells so well, and why humanist rebuttals of the Bible never make the best-seller list.)