Understanding the Da Vinci Code: Why Quest Thrillers Work
The first six or so pages of my paperback copy of The Da Vinci Code are taken up with a collection of praise and excerpts from favourable reviews, from publications of all types. People loved this book. And you know what? They were right.
The Da Vinci Code is what they call an airport novel. Published in huge numbers, these fat volumes of zig-zagging adventure accompany bored professionals on long flights, get picked up in desperation by delayed holiday makers, and are bought last-minute by those unready travellers who only started packing this morning and have a flight to catch at 8AM–but didn’t remember to bring anything to read on the beach. They’re light, inconsequential, non-literary books, which one is not required to think hard about, pay much attention to, or retain post-trip.
I haven’t seen the inside of an airport for a good fourteen years, but I love’em. I. Love. Them.
In order to keep their audience diverted, things happen in these books at a great pace. Or in fact at a not so very great pace, but are presented in such a way that urgency is affected. The Da Vinci Code, for example, is a patchwork of two to eight page chapters, and takes place over about eight hours. It’s extremely hard to pin down a chapter in which something important happens, because it’s a constant stream of right now: people thinking about what they didn’t reveal in the last scene, what they should say soon, flashing back to this or that, and wondering about what will happen once they achieve what they’re intending to. Whilst all they actually do in that chapter is drive a car. One’s attention is constantly played to, while not a great deal is asked in terms of active comprehension or detail retention. All you’re asked to do by the text is hang out with it. Reading a quest thriller, for me, is a lot like watching an episode of Mystery Science Theatre. It’s there to entertain me, and if I “get it”–the jokes, the references, the mythology hooks, if I’ve heard of this period of history or know of that Great Man–then that’s all the better and I feel smug. Even if I don’t, then no biggie; the thing is there to divert me. I feel waited upon.
A book of this sort does not expect its reader to devote their time. This is good for somebody who is reading a small chapter in a short work break or on an underground train: they will be reminded of whatever happened last time, next time. It’s also good for a fast reader. While the reminders that serve the interrupted audience well may annoy a voracious reader, as they come much sooner and more regularly if you’re hoovering a book down in one, two, or three gulps, there’s none of the pressure or intellectual fatigue that can come with a heavy novel taken in at a fast pace. The text almost seems to race along in challenge to your speedy read, like dolphins next to a boat. The adventure progresses at a pace to match your heartbeat. As reader, you won’t feel you’re doing disservice to the book by powering through, because you aren’t.
I adore quest thrillers particularly, amongst airport novels, because… that’s my taste. There’s no real reason, no quality that marks them superior. They simply appeal to me. I like forests and jungles and old, old stones, I like to go in, look at and think of ruined buildings. I love clues. I like crafted objects, and things that remind me that all objects are crafted, really. I like the friendly continuity of history that ancient puzzles designed to be solved by the correctly-primed few create. I like the “find your community” motif–ancient individual forms gang to protect valuable thing, makes treasure hunt based on personal interests and own areas of research for people just like them to understand years later makes an internet out of time. The social medium of history, call-and-response friendship across centuries. It makes the past more human, and modern humans more invested and connected. In solving “the Da Vinci code,” Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu validate Da Vinci, having created puzzle boxes and symbolic imagery, and they validate Sauniere’s love and ability of using them, as well as everybody who put any intrigue into the guarding of the big secret that the book revolves around. Those are kind things to do!
So the genre’s a winner, for my money. But individually? Book to book, there’s a fluctuation in quality that’s to be expected in any arena. Perhaps slightly more than is reasonable–they’re terribly marketable, and terribly ephemeral, and so editors, apparently, quite often stop giving a fuck. There are a great number of blatantly terrible quest thrillers, bad books of poor craft, and it’s impossible to tell which might be which from the blurbs and the pull-quotes from other quest thriller authors’ reviews on the covers. But I’m here! And I’m ready to help. Here’s a spread, from grody to grand–titles available in any given charity shop, which is the only place I buy these things, because really: who can afford it?
The Turin Shroud Secret, Sam Christer
Blurb: It is the most controversial religious icon in the world.
No one knows where it came from.
No one knows when it was made.
But now, the greatest mystery in religious history holds the key to a present-day serial killer who devises savage, bizarre deaths for his victims.
And only two American cops, following a trail that stretches from California to the Vatican, can expose the secret of the Shroud.
From internationally bestselling author Sam Christer, published in 35 languages around the world, comes a thriller packed with relentless action, shocking twists and astounding research – the most suspenseful and intelligent novel of its kind since The Da Vinci Code.
I definitely read this, but can remember nothing about it. At five hundred pages, you’ll forgive me for avoiding a redux. The Stonehenge Legacy, advertised on the cover, was OK, some original flourishes, but felt like it abandoned itself halfway through. That’s one’s hard to recall too–not always a negative (Discworld books evade memory like the dickens, which just makes their re-read value even higher), but in this case… not the best. Christer’s got the ideas, or at least a fair number of them, but I don’t think the stars are aligned. This novel is written in present tense.
The Templar Quest, C M Palov
Blurb: Finn McGuire finds himself framed for a string of murders moments after he uncovers the legendary Medallion in an ancient Syrian chapel. The culprits are a group of Nazi SS descendents known as The Seven who will stop at nothing to possess the pendant . . . and the Holy Grail. Their wish? To resurrect the Third Reich.
Former MI5 operative Caedmon Aisquith is an expert in the Knights Templar and the Grail; he knows the Seven can only desire it for evil and when Finn approaches him, the two join forces in a quest to find the deadly relic and halt the bloodshed.
Their race takes them from the Louvre to a medieval citadel in the Pyrenees. But the stakes are high for the fate of mankind hangs in the balance if they fail.
Hey, so I forgot which story this blurb was for, and thought “Finn McGuire is kind of an annoying name.” And then I took a second to reflect, and remembered that the other #GoodTeam man in this book is called Caedmon Aesquith. He went to Oxford, you know.
This book is bad, and that’s that. Every character is personally awful and a trial to spend time with. You wouldn’t know it from the blurb but there is a woman teamed with Finn, and she brings Caedmon into the mix; I guess she was just too female to mention. Despite Palov being a woman herself. Baffling.
Kate’s an academic, because that’s how so many of these books work: there’s gun-man, and brain-woman, and then they sex. Caedmon is an unusual inclusion (I got the impression he’d appeared in other books by this author), and serves as their wifi hookup, Kate’s jealous ex-lover with a secondary romantic tragedy to his name and character, and to irritate Finn by said ex- status as well as his hatred of the Irish. Even the Irish American, which of course Finn is, Boston accent and all. Hating the Irish–all of them, the entire Irish diaspora–due to IRA bombings, in 2011? Fuck off then, Caedmon, you weird, mucky bigot.
But Caedmon is the least of our problems, to be frank. Finn is insufferable because he is a soldier who cannot stop his hard-on when the Pure Nobility of True American Patriots are the topic of conversation; he tables this subject whenever possible. In a book about the evils of nazism. The evils of nationalism. Let’s fight that with patriotism! Smart as fuck! Finn is rude, straight-up rude. He’s snide and sulky and basically a huge toddler who will wander off in a museum when he gets bored of listening to… people trying to solve the problem of where might the nazi death weapon be.
Kate Bauer–yes, Bauer, like Jack–is carefully defined as Asian American; one grandparent was Japanese. A point is made of her having freckles and “almond-shaped” eyes. Her purpose is to translate what Lassie is saying about the boy in the well, and to look sexy, despite (yes! despite!) being thoughtful and intelligent. For some reason a number of pages are devoted to the registration of this character as having suffered the loss of a young child, its death occuring whilst her husband cheated on her with a student. This relates to the quest in no way at all, but allows Finn to prove he’s more than the world’s biggest baby by… loving her… anyway?
Anyway, they start in America and then go to Paris, and then they stay in Paris, just talking and escaping from murderers, and some nazis talk for a million years, and a sexy assassin gets her boob out, and this is the kind of book that makes you wish you were asleep. Don’t buy this for your trip. Just take a good, healing nap.
The Mozart Conspiracy, Scott Mariani
Former SAS operative Ben Hope is running for his life.
Enlisted by the beautiful Leigh Llewellyn – world famous opera star and Ben’s first love – to investigate her brother’s mysterious death, Ben finds himself caught up in a centuries-old puzzle.
The official line states that Oliver died whilst investigating Mozart’s death, but the facts don’t add up. Oliver’s research reveals that Mozart, a notable freemason, may have been killed by a shadowy and powerful splinter group of the cult. The only clues lie in an ancient letter, believed to have been written by Mozart himself.
When Leigh and Ben receive video evidence of a ritual sacrifice being performed by hooded men, they realise that the sect is still in existence today…and will stop at nothing to remain a secret.
From the dreaming spires of Oxford to Venice’s labyrinthine canals, the majestic architecture of Vienna and Slovenia’s snowy mountains, Ben and Leigh must forget the past and race across Europe to uncover the truth behind THE MOZART CONSPIRACY…
An electrifying and utterly gripping must read for fans of Dan Brown, Sam Bourne and Ludlum’s Bourne series.
This is not a quest thriller. Covers lie. Because nobody involved cares a jot about Mozart, or the secret letter hidden inside his special piano, or the Illuminati symbolism in The Magic Flute, or… about anything. The “quest” is “get rich/don’t get dead,” and the thrills are found elsewhere. I hate the characters tremendously, except for the policeman, his daughter and their dog–who seem to have dropped out of a far better euro-crime novel, right up until the moment the dog is shot by an evil mercenary’s machine gun.
Ben, heroic wonderful male lead Ben–whom press has as “‘James Bond meets Jason Bourne, with a historical twist,” and no, because those guys have a manifesto at least–thinks it’s clever to tell professionals you don’t think much of their work simply because they used to be married to your current love interest and own ex-lover, and kills an assassin so-amusingly with a skillet to the brain. Ha-ha, observe the subversion of domesticity!
Ben so little respects the genre for which he’s nominally a standard bearer that when confronted with a painstakingly repaired antique piano, in a specialist museum… he rips off its leg with his bare, muscle-ridden, man-hands because he has no interest in the history of music and no respect for composition. Then it’s the wrong leg. So he rips off the other, and they leave this artefact destroyed on the floor for the museum’s security to find. Neither Ben nor The Mozart Conspiracy give a shit about history, or validation, or the ideas of dead creatives. He wants two things: money, and for his sexy old girlfriend to love him again. Well, she does. And then she gets stabbed and dies in the road. I’d not piss on this book if it was on fire.
The Atlantis Revelation, Thomas Greanias
The adventure begins with the discovery of the wreckage of a sunken Nazi submarine – and a shocking legacy of Hitler’s quest to find Atlantis. Archaeologist Conrad Yeats discovers in the ruins of the Third Reich the key to an ancient conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of every major government. Suddenly Yeats is plunged into a deadly race across the Mediterranean, hunted by the assassins of an international organization that will stop at nothing to ignite global Armageddon and revive an empire. And only Serena Serghetti, the beautiful Vatican linguist he loved and lost, can help him save the world from the Atlantis Revelation.
This book would have been much, much better if it was all about the cool, calm, motivated and diplomatic nun who, as-is, serves as main man Conrad Yeats’ long-suffering romantic interest. You can read it if you like but you may as well just watch a film (any action film); these books that think they’re “cinematic” don’t realise that one must give time to describing, not simply establishing, the hunk properties of their action heroes when working in prose. We can SEE how handsome and rakish Harrison Ford is, or whoever. We watch his hair fall about and his stubble glint and can see which side of his mouth quirks in a smile. We observe for ourselves his forearms under a rolled up safari shirt. A viewer sees the quality of his anatomy and watches him pant, out of breath, humanly. We can see his physical appeal, whether it floats our personal boat or not. A reader sees nothing except alphabet, arranged to evoke purposeful imagery. In prose, sexiness or masculine appeal have to be written. And here, they’re not. Conrad Yeats is just a cocky asshole who’s had sex with a number of women. His nun deserves much, much better.
The Noah’s Ark Quest, Boyd Morrison
Before he dies, the father of ambitious young architect Dilara Kenner leaves her tantalising clues about the location of the legendary historical artefact – Noah’s Ark.
The most fabled relic of all time, the search for Noah’s Ark has obsessed many over the years. And when Dilara starts her quest – aided by former army engineer Tyler Locke – she rapidly becomes transfixed by the thought of discovering it.
But there are sinister forces gathering who have deadly reasons for wanting to be the first ones to get to the relic.
From a helicopter crash in the Atlantic, to a sinister sect in Arizona’s Mojave desert, to the remote slopes of Mount Ararat, this thrilling page-turner blends nonstop action with fascinating historical fact.
The author biography in this novel tells us that Boyd Morrison has worked, professionally, on Xbox games. In this case, Boyd Morrison should be aware of the perils of over-reliance upon linearity. He is not! In this novel small events just happen, in a row, endlessly. Until at last they end. Which is a shame as the relic, once found, is excellently described and there is some very appealing Ancient environment descriptions. Novels should feature team-ups more often, I think, as some authors are suited to thinking up “cool things” and environmental creation and some are suited to passing time within a story without boring the reader. Combine the two, and bob’s your uncle: quality fiction.
There’s a section of the book in which Our Hero and his sidekick–who if you’ll recall my comments about lazy, conservative templates, is black, jovial, and encouraging–must find some bombs on an oil rig. I read two full pages of it and had to read them again, having accidentally spent the time my eyes were on it letting my brain think about Metal Gear.
The characters are okay, if vestigial, but it bothers me that the protagonist’s best-friend-sidekick was a pro-wrestler (this is not the bothersome part) who, whilst working, was known as The Boulder (this is). Am I supposed to understand we are working with an alternate reality in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was never the People’s Champion? Or am I supposed to believe that The Boulder’s gimmick was that he was ripping off The Rock? That’s sad, and I don’t think it would take. These questions are too diverting. They have nothing to do with the story, but I care more about exploring them than I do about hearing What Katy Did Next.
Shattered Icon, Bill Napier
Blurb: As an antique map dealer in a small English town, Harry Blake appreciates the quiet life. But when a local landowner asks him to value a 400 year old journal and twelve hours later he is brutally murdered, Harry’s peace of mind is shattered. What does the dusty journal contain that is a matter of life or death? Why is someone prepared to pay Harry a fortune to steal it? He turns to marine historian Zola Khan to uncover the mysteries. The trail of the journal leads him into a world of deadly Elizabethan conspiracies, and the thread of history takes him through a thousand years of religious intrigue back to the blood-soaked Crusades. And he finally learns that at stake are millions of dollars and a plan to trigger nothing less than war…
This one starts well. It allows women some banter, but abandons the Templars/Crusades angle (which is what the blurb promised us) to concentrate on the diary of a 16th century Scottish teenager. This boy, we gradually discover as his coded diary is translated to modern English, accidentally becomes a member of an early North American colony. Plot- and travel-wise this comes to nothing, which is irritating enough as a matter of craft. But, later, a rich, white, modern teenager, very much into genealogy, gets fiercely prideful about her inherited wealth–which she just bought “back” from a black Jamaican family for an appallingly low fee–whilst much of the modern portions of the book have been spent researching the Jamaican slaves her family owned and referring to the modern black branch of her family as “poorists.” I do not suppose that my namesake was aware he was creating a novel that is a riot of racist appropriation, but… that’s what he did, in the end.
The Greening, Margaret Coles
Blurb: Joanna, a Fleet Street journalist, chances upon the journal of the mysterious Anna Leigh. She is moved by Anna’s compelling confessional about her life-changing encounter with Julian of Norwich – an extraordinary woman from another age, who risked death at the stake to write a secret manuscript revealing the truth entrusted to her.
Joanna becomes captivated by Julian, remembering her own neglected ambition to pursue the truth at all costs. But Julian is from an alien world – can Joanna believe her promise that pain and suffering can lead to peace and happiness? Anna has the answer, but Joanna can find no trace of her.
Joanna’s conscience is tested and she is put in danger when confronted by a terrible choice. Does she save her career by smearing a whistle-blower who has exposed a government scandal in which her lover may be implicated? Dare she risk all she holds dear to capture the greatest treasure of all?
This initially seemed like a quest thriller! Everything was there: mysterious texts, personal understanding across the ages, historical personhood, “terrible choices.” It warps a little and becomes about acceptance — of tragedy, of hardship, of impotence, of life. An inverse quest thriller, almost, about letting go of what you set your heart on, because it’s lost, and “that’s okay.” Quite an interesting read, although I found it rather trying. Not sanctimonious, maybe getting there. This is a list written by somebody in favour of answers and “solving the mystery” and action, so naturally The Greening, a book about releasing the past, will sit oddly upon it. But I don’t regret the time I spent with it.
Sanctus, Simon Toyne
The certainties of the modern world are about to be blown apart by a three thousand year-old conspiracy nurtured by blood and lies …
A man throws himself to his death from the oldest inhabited place on the face of the earth, a mountainous citadel in the historic Turkish city of Ruin. This is no ordinary suicide but a symbolic act. And thanks to the media, it is witnessed by the entire world.
But few understand it. For charity worker Kathryn Mann and a handful of others in the know, it is what they have been waiting for. The cowled and secretive fanatics that live in the Citadel suspect it could mean the end of everything they have built – and they will kill, torture and break every law to stop that. For Liv Adamsen, New York crime reporter, it begins the next stage of a journey into the heart of her own identity.
And at that journey’s end lies a discovery that will change EVERYTHING …
SANCTUS is an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller like no other – it re-sets the bar for excitement and fascination, and marks the debut of a major talent in Simon Toyne.
This one is something of a joy. The story turned into a trilogy, which I doubt was the intention from the first draft; at the climax most elements of the fiction have been arranged to allow a tying-off. But it escalates! And then it escalates! And! Then! It escalates!
Our protagonist Liv is a journalist with a strong knowledge of botany, both of which appeal to me personally, round her out as a character instead of a cipher, and serve the plot all at once. There’s certainly something to be said about the placement of a white, blonde american woman in the primary role; that’s an essay I’d certainly read, and a stumbling block indicative of the wider white-centrism of the saturated quest thriller market. If you’re looking for a relic hunting book that is exciting and creative and respectful of the characters that it does have, pick this one up, and read it critically.
The Dead Sea Deception, Adam Blake
As ex-mercenary Leo Tillman and ambitious cop Heather Kennedy investigate a series of baffling deaths, the trail leads them to the Dead Sea Scrolls – and the deadly gospel hidden within them.
But soon Tillman and Kennedy are running for their lives from a band of sinister assassins who weep tears of blood and believe themselves descended from Judas. These ‘fallen angels’ will stop at nothing to expose the world-changing secret of the Scrolls . . . the secret of how Christ really died.
Rocketing from a spectacular plane crash in the American desert to a brutal murder at a London university to a phantom city in Mexico, The Dead Sea Deception is the most gripping, revelatory thriller since The Da Vinci Code.
A very strong cover! Being told that everything we know about anything is a lie is forceful, with intent to intrigue, but Christ’s death (or important moments in Christian history in general) is a particular subject of interest for the quest thriller. Practically a sub-genre. I assume that this is a combination of the cultural Christianity of much of the English-first-language market, and of widespread salacious atheism within this demographic. Certainly I like it because I was brought up on Christian systems and imagery, and have a story-based familiarity with the Bible; Biblical stories are a structure my perspective relies upon, although I don’t subscribe to the Christian religion. For me, these novels serve the same purpose as any fanfiction (not because the Bible is a commercial product to be disrespected, but because many irreligious stories matter deeply despite their commerciality and change my internal landscape in a fashion similar to spirituality). I read Scarlett after Gone With The Wind and I liked it–I read these books to see if they can provide new alleys of thought in narrative neighbourhoods I’m familiar with.
This book, in fact, is a standout entry in the Quest Thriller library. It has a male protagonist, and a woman protagonist, and they meet and combat the machinations of fanatics together. But they don’t fall in love. He’s devoted to the memory of his vanished family (this informs his presence in the novel entirely), and she’s–she’s gay. A LESBIAN IN A QUEST THRILLER! Do you know how exciting this is?
A woman with sexual agency that’s quite apart from the gun-man she shares adventures with. Radical, in the context of the genre, and showing up the more template-devoted, production line books for what they are: lazy, conservative, regressive. Not only that, but she’s a police woman with dispensation for use of firearms, in England, and Blake uses this to allow his characters relevant diversions on the philosophy of gun use and law enforcement. Add some excellent, believably ridiculous world-building, respectful treatment of Christianity and Jesus (you’d not expect it from the cover, but– covers lie), spooky scenes in the american desert, realistic interpersonal interaction between a cast that’s, I suppose, diverse within its whiteness, and with women’s authority respected and validated by the text itself– this one is a sure recommendation. There’s a final “reveal” that didn’t need to happen, but it was so obviously due to editorial request that I forgave the crushing of the inferred secret’s previously intact elegance. If you like a bit of melancholy between your action sequences and clue-spotting, put this on your list for sure. I’d read this again.
The Last Gospel, David Gibbins
What if one of the Ancient World’s greatest libraries was buried in volcanic ash and then re-discovered two thousand years later? What if what was found there was a document that could shatter the very foundations of the Western World? What if you were the one who discovered this secret? And were then forced to confront terrifying enemies determined to destroy you to ensure it goes no further?
This is the story of one last Gospel, left behind in the age of the New Testament, in the greatest days of the Roman Empire, and of its extraordinary secret, one that has lain concealed for years. Follow Jack Howard as he discovers the secret and must prevent others from doing the same…
David Gibbins is a treasure and his books are my favorites. Reading his bio, it says “[m]uch of the inspiration for my novels comes from my own experiences as an archaeologist and diver.” He is a real archaeologist! And it shows. David Gibbins loves the splendours and pathos of history, conceptually as well as in daintier detail, and so every book he writes is a gallivanting romp through all of time. For example: this novel is about a gospel of the New Testament, which must be searched for amongst Italian Roman ruins. That’s already two historical situations. But did you expect to visit an underwater, Celtic tomb in London? Or a shipwreck off Sicily? Did you expect to visit tunnels under modern Rome, or the Vatican? Or be shown around Tel Aviv by a cool Ethiopian nun involved in interfaith diplomacy? In every entry in the Jack Howard & Pals series — I will even forgive Gibbins choice of the forename Jack — Gibbins shows us the world; shining, shimmering, splendid. His characters are alive in their expertise on and interest in world history, and knowledge, and their own specific fields. They chat amongst themselves with vigor and excitement. As the Protagonist Man, Jack is not especially standout; he’s as sandy haired and lightly stubbled, in my impression, as any of them are. But he’s nice! Never sneers or snubs. Likes people. Likes sites of human interest. Likes preservation and education. Has complex hurt and forgiveness for the girl who broke his heart years ago.
Jack Howard has not fallen into a mighty treasure-quest. He’s dedicated his life and career to the quest for lost treasures. It’s an important semantic difference. The nobility of choice, I suppose.
The Last Gospel has a perspective on Jesus that I thoroughly appreciate, and which reproduces my essential positive response to the Howard series as a whole: what if, Gibbins suggests, Jesus was nice. A very, very, friendly, personable man. Not just designated-holy, but a real, living, good man. Somebody who naturally, with earnest effort and guilelessness, expressed his appreciation of your value, as he lived his own life with his own job and family. Reading these novels as fan fiction or reinterpretation of those most familiar characters and legacies, nothing’s meant more to me than the idea that the Great Man, Jesus Christ, the ultimate role model in C of E primary schools, might have been “as good as they say” whilst he lived, authentically, as an individual.
It’s been twelve years since I read The Da Vinci Code in the Lower Sixth common room, and while it’s not guaranteed that picking up a garish cover that promises LIES and RELICS and MURDER and QUESTING will give me something worth my time, I’ve yet to give up on this corner of the pulp publishing world. Reading and reflecting on the bad ones gives me the gift of knowledge; that solved-the-cracker-puzzle feeling of accomplishment, I saw what went wrong. Spotting the patterns of what’s missing in even the good ones teaches me about the shortcomings of cultural assumption. And when I find a good one? I feel a chain of hands, reaching back over centuries and millennium, reminding me “yes. We were all human. We were all living people who cared. Everybody has always been just as perfectly real, as you.”