You have to be careful not to tread too heavily on sour grapes when it comes to Dan Brown, because the wine it creates is foul and bitter, and leaves you rather than the author of The Da Vinci Code with a bloody awful hangover. There is nothing wrong in doing extremely well writing potboilers about lawyers, dinosaurs, or Napoleonic soldiers, or even raptor-riding barristers at Waterloo, but it's Brown's deliberate obscuring of the vital barrier between fact and fiction that is so problematic. He injects a strong political and theological agenda into his writing, and claims to be exposing his readers to truths they otherwise would never know. So it's not that he writes so badly — and every reviewer has listed the stylistic howlers and aching clichés — but that he has a genuinely noxious influence.
The man is overestimated in that he is, simply, taken extremely seriously by more people than we might like to believe, and has led myriad innocents to question or lose their Christian faith, or embrace entirely ersatz history. If you doubt it, visit the Temple in London and hear the guides begin their chat with a long correction of Dan Brown's version of medieval Europe. Good Lord, it's why the tourists are there in the first place!
Brown's new novel, Inferno, is simply more of the last book, which was more of the one before that. This time he misunderstands and perverts the writings of Dante, libels the Philippines, pretty much advocates eugenics and strident population control, and mocks anybody who believes in the concepts of sin, salvation and heaven. Oh, and there's plenty of Catholic-bashing and wild conspiracy theories again, of course.
It was The Da Vinci Code that made Brown famous, in which he gave us the hysterical claim that Christ's followers never thought of Him as a messianic figure, and that the earliest written documents substantiate this.
It was only at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, wrote Brown, that Jesus was said to be divine. Not quite. Jesus is called "God" seven times in the New Testament and is referred to as being divine on dozens of occasions. He was crucified not for being a prophet or an ethicist, or for that matter a champion of social justice, but for claiming to be the Son of God.
There are numerous letters from pagan and thus objective writers from the first and second centuries, long before Nicaea, describing how Christians believe Jesus to be divine, including one written to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in AD 180. All the Council of Nicaea did was to affirm that Jesus was in fact the Son of God.
But Brown didn't stop there. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest Christian writings in existence, opined our boy, and the Gnostic Gospels frequently mention Mary Magdalene and her marriage to Jesus. Actually the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish writings and have no direct connection with Christianity at all, and as for those much-discussed Gnostic Gospels, they at no time mention Jesus as being married to Mary.
But here's the point, and one that applies equally to the latest book. Dan Brown doesn't expect his readers actually to read the Gnostic Gospels or Dante, any more than he worries that they will know that there are no monks — albino or otherwise — in the largely lay Catholic organisation Opus Dei, or that the Emperor Constantine did not write any of the Gospels. He knows that if you say these things with apparent authority, and also imply that it's esoteric and dangerous knowledge, some of the more credulous out there will drink the unholy blood from the unholy grail. In other words, Brown condescends and relies on mass ignorance, and in the contemporary world there's a lot of it about.
I once debated with a feminist student at a leading Canadian university, who assured me that five million women were killed by the Catholic Church as witches in medieval Europe. I gave her documented evidence that in fact between 30,000 and 100,000 people, men and women, were executed for witchcraft in the period she was describing. When I challenged her to tell me where she found these numbers, she reluctantly admitted that it was in a Dan Brown book. "But," she stressed, "he is quoting from accurate sources." She wasn't stupid, and it's easier than you might think to be taken in by the mingling of thin, commonplace prose with ostensibly reliable historical references.
Dan Brown was once asked if he was a Christian since he claimed to know so much about it. In a rather long and pretentious answer he explained: "I am, although perhaps not in the most traditional sense of the word. If you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different answers." Nor is he a novelist, in the traditional sense of the word. But what he is really saying here is that he's not a Christian at all, but prefers to sound enigmatic and mysterious in his response because enigma and mystery sells. I only hope Dan Brown's Purgatory isn't next, but I fear the worst. Perhaps my having had to read him will save me a few years in the real thing.