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The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Doubleday, $24.95.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

This has been one of the books of the summer - everyone's talking about it and reading it too, and we're selling copies even though it's available at a far greater discount at Walmart. It's encouraging that The DaVinci Code is a bestseller, because it's a smart one. While Brown's narrative employs numerous familiar techniques - and anyone who reads lots of mysteries will recognize them - the double cross, the secret identity, the cliff hanger, the situation impossible to escape from without great physical harm, etc. (Brown could have used the narrative genius Dick Francis' books as a primer) - but these tricks keep the reader's interest from flagging as he drags us along while teaching us some fairly obscure things about the Holy Grail, the Catholic Church, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Luckily the Da Vinci works referenced in the book are the absolutely most famous images in art history - The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa, the Madonna of the Rocks, and the Vitruvian Man - even so, a few plates wouldn't have been amiss. As it was I made frequent reference to a handy web museum featuring all of the abovementioned images. The story starts with the discovery of a gruesomely murdered Louvre curator, who has arranged himself as a final clue to not only the identity of his killer, but, it becomes clear, clues to a map to the Holy Grail. The man called in by the police, a renowned symbologist, to try and help them interpret the clues the dead man has left behind, is joined by a code breaker from the French police who also happens to be the dead curator's granddaughter. The Da Vinci Code is full of surprise after surprise, and it pulls the reader along on what becomes a quest for these two, not only to find the curator's murderer, but the whereabouts of the Holy Grail itself.

The two central characters never flesh out to much more than plot devices, but they're good plot devices, and the trail they follow is such a convoluted and interesting one it can't help but be compelling. Any lover of puzzles, codes, or art history should find this book impossible to put down. I'm not a scholar, so I don't know if any of what Dan Brown says has a basis in solid scholarship - but lots of what he says makes sense, even if the conclusion is a bit disappointing. This is easily one of the smartest beach reads ever, and it even leaves you thinking when you're finished.

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