A new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, came out in 2009. It went immediately to the top of the best seller lists and remained there for several months. But I don’t care how popular it is. I’m not going to read it.
Ok, I read The Da Vinci Code, and Angels and Demons. I thought The Da Vinci Code was an interesting example of the hunt/chase thriller of which John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps remains the best example. The hero inadvertently becomes involved in a hunt for someone or something, and is pursued by both the police and the baddies. The hero is helped by some of the people he meets on the way and is obstructed by others, and has to break a code to reach his goal. Brown came up with a gripping conspiracy theory with real appeal: has the Roman Catholic Church been hiding the truth about Jesus for centuries? It was a much better draw-card than the Angels and Demons Illuminati conspiracy, which didn’t make waves when it was first published, and only piggy-backed on the later book’s popularity.
Descriptions of The Lost Symbol make it sound remarkably like the two previous Robert Langdon stories. This time it’s a Masonic conspiracy he’s called in to deal with, set in Washington DC (no need for all those foreign film locations). How many times can you recycle the same structure and character in a different setting?
But it’s not just because of the apparent plot similarities that I’m not going to read it. It’s because of the terrible prose.
Some people have called me a snob for objecting to the way Brown writes. After all, he’s obviously hugely popular; what can be wrong with how he writes?
I’m indebted to a post about Brown’s prose style on a blog called Language Log for what follows. It takes lines from the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code and dissects them. For example:
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”
On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.
Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.
The blogger points out that a voice doesn’t speak, a person does. If the curator is frozen, how can his head be turning? How can a silhouette stare? If all the curator can see is a silhouette, how does he know that the attacker’s skin is ghost pale or that his eyes are pink with dark red pupils? If this is just a description for the reader, not something the curator can see, what is the point of him turning his (frozen) head?
In addition to such mangled descriptions, almost every page yields a crop of clichés. In Angels and Demons, Kohler’s eyes sharpen, Langdon feels a wave of apprehension, he fights a wave of nausea and his eyes are riveted on the body, just to take a few random examples. There is nothing wrong with any of these taken alone, but they are Brown’s stock in trade; there is never anything else.
Certainly thrillers need to be fast paced, and the prose style is less important than the story. But does this mean it is OK for them to be badly written? I don’t think so.
The Telegraph came up with Dan Brown’s 20 worst sentences and some of these are pretty funny; check them out here.