Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday 2003)

The Da Vinci Code, which is thrilling from the first page to the last, begins with a murder in the Louvre and ends with a scholar finding the Holy Grail. In the middle lie such pleasures as a lesson in the sacred feminine, an analysis of The Last Supper, an alternative history of Christianity, a lurid description of the fleshy delights of Paris' Bois de Boulogne, nearly a dozen anagram puzzles and a whirlwind architectural tour of several ancient churches.

Anyone who has heard of Holy Blood, Holy Grail won't be shocked by the central revelation of The Da Vinci Code; in fact, one of the main characters is named Leigh Teabing, presumably an anagrammatic homage to that book's authors, Baigent and Leigh. But the secret life of Jesus and Mary Magdalene constitutes only a very small element in this fast-paced adventure story. The Da Vinci Code weaves together realistic descriptions of contemporary Europe with a consistent internal mythology that makes it easy to suspend disbelief for as long as it takes to read, which in my case was in one gulp on an overnight plane to Europe — it's that hard to put down.

The story begins with a trail of blood, which is only appropriate given the theme. Shortly after the murder of a curator in the world's most famous art museum, the French police call in American professor Robert Langdon to help them decode the strange clues left behind by the victim, Jacques Sauniere. Langdon is a symbologist working on goddess iconography, who had expected to meet with Sauniere during his stay in Paris. He believes that he has been called in by the police as an expert in arcane symbols, but he quickly realizes that he is a suspect in the murder investigation when a police cryptographer warns him that he is under surveillance. Sophie Neveu reveals further that Sauniere was her grandfather, and a member of a secret society that she will not discuss with the police.

Sophie understands that the postscript to her grandfather's final message — a "P.S." that stands for her childhood nickname, Princess Sophie, written by Sauniere in his own blood on the floor of the Louvre — is meant for her alone. But she needs Langdon as badly as the police do to explain the mythological symbols and apparent references to heretical religious beliefs. For Sophie has not spoken to her grandfather in years — not since she discovered his involvement with what seemed to her to be a frightening cult.

Fleeing the authorities, Robert and Sophie hunt for the treasure of Sauniere's legacy and take refuge in the home of a friend of Robert's. Leigh Teabing, an eccentric millionaire obsessed with the Grail legend, gives Sophie a crash course in the history of the Priory of Sion. This secret organization has been entrusted with protecting the greatest secret of Christianity — a secret that members of the Catholic Church have killed to hide in the past, and would kill again to destroy for good. Racing from members of the ultra-conservative prelature Opus Dei as well as from police across France and England, Robert and Sophie seek to unravel the truth about the Holy Grail before it is lost forever.

This is a thriller for readers who like art, words, visual puns and word-games, which should come as no surprise given that its protagonists are both cryptographers. The chapters set in the Louvre include brief analyses of several Da Vinci paintings (hence the title) as well as the beginnings of a scavenger hunt through visual clues in the artwork, which amounts to no less than a reinterpretation of the major symbols of Western history. Langdon is a controversial academic due in no small part to his research on the Illuminati (the subject of Brown's previous novel, Angels and Demons), which nearly got him killed the last time he came into conflict with the interests of the Vatican.

Yet despite his wit and erudition, he's a nerd at heart who'd rather be poring over ancient manuscripts or using the Internet to track down arcane literary references than driving a borrowed car through Paris. He has very little time to figure out which mysterious group — the Priory of Sion or Opus Dei — represents a bigger threat to him and Sophie, and to the knowledge represented by the Holy Grail, a fascination with which they share with Teabing and numerous others who have sought the truth over many centuries.

The supporting characters, unfortunately, aren't fleshed out as well. The brutal albino monk and the besieged head of the French investigative team, both of whom pursue the protagonists, remain two-dimensional. And the numerous people who appear in the story only to die protecting the Grail's secrets begin to seem like red-shirted ensigns on Star Trek, in that you can tell at the start of a scene who's not going to survive it. But the ongoing puzzles and word games keep the pace lively, as well as many colorful scenic descriptions — I particularly enjoyed reading about the Church of Saint-Sulpice in France and the Temple Church of London.

This isn't a deep book; don't believe the cover hype about how intellectual it is, for the research sources are dubious at best. Art historians may scoff at the Da Vinci interpretations and serious Grail buffs will already have heard every legend Teabing explores with Sophie about the myths of Christ and the early Church. Catholics, too, may be troubled by the unfavorable characterization of Church authorities, though the most controversial figures are all renegades from a marginalized sect.

Yet as a high-energy thriller filled with likeable protagonists, fascinating settings, intriguing secret societies and a powerful feminist religious theme, The Da Vinci Code weaves history and conjecture into a fast and fun read. For a taste, check out the book's Web site, where you can try out some historical puzzles and word-games that typify those of the novel.

[Michelle Erica Green]

Author Dan Brown's Web site is here.