When the world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon, the protagonist of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, is called in the middle of the night to go to the Louvre to assist the police in their investigation of the murder of a prominent curator, he doesn't realise that by co-operating with the Parisian authorities, he has become the chief suspect. Neither does he realise that the murder victim has left an encoded message that will lead him and a beautiful young cryptologist to embark on a 48-hour hunt in search of a mythical object, the discovery of which could shatter the most fundamental beliefs of Western civilisation.
Not unlike the object of Langdon's search, The Da Vinci Code itself has become something of a Holy Grail for its publishers. Since its publication in 2003, Brown's thriller-cum-theological-conspiracy drama has turned millions of readers into worshippers at the Temple of Brown. Racing through its pages, it's easy to see why it has found such a captive audience. Brown's narrative juxtaposes some of the classic elements of a thriller - a homicidal albino monk, a shadowy underworld presence whose identity is revealed only in the closing pages, a tough yet vulnerable female accomplice - with just enough conspiracy for the reader to seem knowledgeable about Opus Dei, the Priory of Sion and Leonardo's hidden messages, at any dinner party.
But while Brown is a skilled storyteller, he makes no effort to develop each character, and that, ultimately, slows the whole plot down. There are only so many plot twists, chase scenes and encrypted messages that can sustain a story when the characters remain so one-dimensional. By hurling his protagonists from one perilous situation to another, they become mere vehicles for momentum - they don't eat, sleep, worry about the consequences of their actions, have families or any other relationships. They don't even sustain much in the way of sexual desire for each other - a vital ingredient, one would have thought, in a drama of this nature - managing merely a kiss at the end.
It is this lack of human empathy that eventually erodes any real interest in the story, of which there is more than enough to plough through. And it is this that makes The Da Vinci Code a disappointing read, even before one reaches one of the most underwhelming denouements imaginable.
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