Have you ever read a book that shoves you forcefully through a cunning intellectual labyrinth at breakneck speed, drops you cruel hints and draws some lesser dots in faint lines, leads you to believe, after much effort, you’ve cracked it and spotted the pattern, and then, as you navigate towards the centre, abruptly reveals you were duped and, in fact, it’s over a mile that way? Because that’s exactly what Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons does. This is pretty much the purpose of detective stories: at the same time as the readers are engaging with the plot, they are also — with varying degrees of consciousness — playing chess with the author, trying to suss it out in advance.
The author knows that his book will be much better received if he acknowledges this game going on and humours the armchair detectives, so sometimes he drops hints. If he’s especially good and confident of his abilities, he’ll also drop red herrings (Colin Dexter was prolific at this, and he often forced his heroes to embarrass themselves pursuing them too). However, there is something only the best writers can do, and that is to build up an entire narrative, with motivations, alibis, explanations — all holes covered, so that the readers upon working it out feel very pleased with themselves — and then suddenly veer off in another direction, leaving them lost. The “betrayal from within” story arc is the most common example of this, and at this point it’s extremely cliché, but in my view all that means is that the writer who pulls it off successfully deserves more credit.
Angels and Demons plays this cruel trick with an unprecedented, next-level competency, the plot being so complex and cerebral engineering any coherent path through it would be a Herculean mental exercise, let alone a false one. You can imagine my shock, therefore, upon realising that the book not only does this, but does it twice.
Is it a detective novel? I honestly couldn’t say. It’s one of those cross-genre classics that come along every once in a while. Is The Grapes of Wrath epic or dramatic? It’s certainly much more fast-paced than your average Morse Mystery, although probably longer; the whole plot takes place over the course of one night, and I don’t believe it makes any time jumps other than knock-outs and uninteresting travelling. The story centres around following an ancient hidden trail through Rome, marked by architecture, in order to save hostages, find their captor, and uncover a weapon of mass destruction before the hub of Christendom is annihilated by an organization with all the hallmarks of an ancient secular society, reawakened and militant.
One of the first things you notice when reading is the odd culture clash, as literary genres smash into each other. Put simply, it’s a thriller with a strong sci-fi strain, but it reads like an unusually fast-paced detective story and spends most of its time racing around Renaissance relics, paintings and architecture. As a result of this you can end up with some weird and out of place passages, especially in the first act:
The craft before them was enormous. It was vaguely reminiscent of the space shuttle except that the top had been shaved off, leaving it perfectly flat. Parked there on the runway, it resembled a colossal wedge. Langdon’s first impression was that he must be dreaming. The vehicle looked as airworthy as a Buick. The wings were practically non-existent — just two stubby fins on the rear of the fuselage. A pair of dorsal guiders rose out of the aft section. The rest of the plane was hull — about 200 feet from front to back — no windows, nothing but hull.
“two hundred fifty thousand kilos fully fuelled, the pilot offered, like a pilot bragging about his newborn. “Runs on slush hydrogen. The shell’s a titanium matrix with silicon carbide fibres. She packs a 20:1 thrust/weight ratio; most jets run at 7:1. The director must be in one helluva hurry to see you. He doesn’t usually send the big boy”.
I could quote much more, but you get the idea. This is technobabble, which is fine, but a little odd where a typical intense scene runs thus:
When Langdon had first realized the location of the third marker, the position of the church had rung some distant bells for him. Piazza Barberini. Something about the name was familiar . . . something he could not place. Now Langdon realized what it was. The piazza was the sight of a controversial subway stop. Twenty years ago, construction of the subway terminal had created a stir among art historians who feared digging beneath Piazzza Barberini might topple the multi-ton obelisk that stood in the centre. City planners had removed the obelisk and replaced it with a small fountain called the Triton.
In Bernini’s day, Langdon now realised, Piazza Berberini had contained an obelisk! Whatever doubts Langdon had felt that this was the location of the third marker now totally evaporated.
This is far from the most artsy scene in the book. Indeed Langdon himself is an an art historian, more specifically a professor of religious iconography. Typically, the most exciting moments of the book are where he looks at a piece of architecture, concentrates very hard, draws a tenuous link and realizes where he has to go. He’s sort of like an older, academic, cultured Sherlock Holmes of the art world, and he looks positively anachronistic among the gadgetry of the first act. Thankfully, as time goes on the references to science — integral to, but not exactly integrated well into the plot — grow fewer, but all the way through I thought the allusions to antimatter among the Miltons, Galileos, churches and obelisks were grinding. One could say that was the point, given Angels and Demons‘s themes, but I don’t think any author would willingly damage their own prose like that. Maybe I’m just being pretentious and nobody else had the problem.
For the most part, I like Brown’s prose. He wastes little time on description of anything except clues to be deciphered, dragging the narrative along as fast as it can be taken in. The reader always has just enough to get by on, even if the object in question is hard to visualise and they have never personally seen it, and then back to the action. He also subscribes to the Frank Herbert school of italicised internal monologues, which I approve of and wish more novelists did: it’s a handy way to get emotions down quickly and characterise convincingly. My usual tastes are actually more of an Orwellian, Steinbeck-ish description-laden kind, going on for pages and pages about nothing in particular, so those who like fast books anyway should feel right at home.
Where appropriate short explanations of concepts are given, many of which I found helpful but some I thought patronising. I know what poetic metre is. This, however, cannot be blamed on Brown. He is dealing with a complicated plot nestled deep in obscure history and geography, and exactly how much each individual will need a helping hand varies. He also chucks in lots of precise locations, apparently enticing us to come and check what he says, daring us to try to prove he was lying when he wrote the author’s note at the start: “references to all works of art, tombs, tunnels, and architecture in Rome are entirely factual (as are their exact locations). They can still be seen today”.
Brown does this. What he’s talking about is extremely outlandish — satanic cults, sculptures pointing to sculptures, an immense stack of conveniences and oddities, down to jaw-dropping coincidence unless what he says is all true, drawing a specific shape on a map — and yet he reassures the reader all the way through that “it’s all there if you want to go to look. In fact, I want you to go to look”.
There’s precious little doubt in my mind some of the history is fictitious, and I’m absolutely certain much of the science is. I spotted a reference to the old myth of humans only using a small percentage of their brain power — entirely Hollywood fiction, like the rubbing together of defibrillators, or we would not have evolved them. I have no idea about the references to features of buildings, but there is frankly no way it all adds up. Without paying a trip to an archive, however, I can’t even check whether the newspaper articles were invented, let alone go running around Rome following the trail (good idea for a gap year).
The last thing I wanted to do was touch on the major theme, which is of course religious. Everyone knows how much controversy The Da Vinci Code created, from lawsuits to book-burnings, and I recall some eyebrow-raising threats to cinemas when the film was released. Angels and Demons was less explosive, but I can still see many people taking offence at it, at how critical of Catholicism it appears to be. There is a sick justification for the organization planning the attack. The crimes of the Catholic Church are gone over again and again and again, from its murders to its greed. As undoubtably the most stridently atheistic character in the story remarks, the gold leaf ceiling in the halls of the basilica could fund a year’s worth of cancer research. The final revelation is a story of fear, zealotry, control, and ultimately selfishness, when you think about what is said and done — power above what is right and faithful.
There can be very little reasoning with chronically offended mobs, and they can certainly never be placated, the proper response being simply to stake out your ground and refuse to budge an inch until they go away. But there is much more to the story than an insult to faith — at least more in Angels and Demons. One notices that science doesn’t escape without criticism either. Scientists throughout are soulless, and bear a very deep hatred of religion, laughing at C.E.R.N. as the crisis is followed by the media and overjoyed to hear of this and that murder. Maximilian Kohler, despite his personal, eventually justified loathing of religion, is almost Borg in his portrayal. His coldness, the ruthlessness of his logic with no room for morality, even his megalomaniacal behaviour and physical appearance — as much machine as man — all nail home the point that you can be spiritually bankrupt.
Tirades against science are as common as against religion. Often there are awkward but moving monologues about the dangers of an empiricist world: science creates salvation and in the same stroke damnation, medicine and weapons, power without the guidance to use it, and so men play God themselves. There is duality, as there is duality echoing all throughout the book. The context is set as the five-century long war between the faithful and the enlightened, but they are heads and tails, yin and yang, and it is good neither could grow dominant. Is the moral code of Vittoria — a religious scientist — not described as karma?
What if I told you the message was one of hope? The great breakthrough that triggered the story, and which so enraged both the Church and the top dogs at C.E.R.N., made by a physicist who was also a priest, was a uniting of the two factions. What he discovered could not be more incredible. The Big Bang Theory was entirely compatible with Genesis! We are all of us linked by an ethereal but very measurable force stretching through time, and that prime mover at the beginning of the universe, without basis in any church or holy book, may be called God. The ramifications were earth-shaking, but so were the responses of the establishment. The desire expressed in these 600 pages is for a bringing together, an end to antagonism, to conflict. Think for a moment about the two abrupt direction changes Brown makes towards the end of the book. How plausible were they both? The key message, I assert, is in there.
P.S. Should mention I don’t actually buy this theme, as an idea worth believing in. Nothing would be lost in a secular world. Maybe the evidence of that is how I can appreciate this fine book.