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Literary standards are running scared from Da Vinci and Scarecrow

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 8 July 2004

After reading The Da Vinci Code by American author Dan Brown (Bantam Press, 2003) and Scarecrow by Australia’s Matthew Reilly (Pan Macmillan 2003), I have decided that there is no justice in the world. Or, to put it another way, any piece of nonsense where the narrative is sufficiently fast-paced, and with enough of a “hook” to keep readers intrigued, can get into the best seller lists. Writing style does not matter a damn. Yes I am a frustrated author, and jealous of others who have managed to shoulder their way into publisher lists, apparently only by having the nerve and “front” to do so – certainly it has not been through having anything but a mediocre writing talent. Their real talent is in making up outrageous stories and spinning them sufficiently well to “suspend disbelief”.

The first indictment in this column’s list of undeservedly successful - at least according to me - is Dan Brown, who has taken an idea from a book published in 1983, Holy Blood Holy Grail by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, fully credited in Brown’s book, and hung a thriller about it. The action involves a lot of running around in France and England but every now and then the characters pause to lecture each other about various aspects of the history of the Bible, Christianity and art.

Some of facts in the lectures are well known – Jesus was declared divine in the fourth century, where previously he had been thought of as having a “special relationship" with God. Parts I disagreed with and other parts, I suspect, are exaggerations or outright fabrications required to keep the fictional plot credible. For example, one of the book’s themes (apparently borrowed from Holy Blood, Holy Grail) is that Jesus did have some claim to be a Jewish King, with that claim resting in part on a genealogy tree given in Matthew. But that genealogy is generally dismissed by scholars as a likely later insertion.


Another problem is that although Jesus’s life and death are, obviously, the centre about which Christianity revolves, the Church itself was formed by Paul who is considered unlikely to have met Jesus. He certainly went his own way, particularly in allowing Gentiles into the Church, after the proto-Christians-Jewish faction in the Holy Land itself, including prominent members who knew Jesus, were swept away in the Roman-Jewish war. It is from Paul that much of the anti-female bias of the Church, strongly criticised in Brown’s book, is said to come. There is no need to invent elaborate plots.

But I digress. Several other books have since come up, including The Da Vinci Code Decoded (Martin Lunn, The Disinformation Company, 2004), for those who want to go into the details of sects, organisations, paintings and various Biblical “facts” which Brown drags into the book. Although doubtful history, in parts, the premise is certainly good enough for a piece of fiction. My real complaint concerns the weak writing. To be fair, Brown is tolerable at the beginning but starts to slip towards the end. There are indications that he has written the book too quickly.

Thus “Against the hum of the bullet proof tyres beneath them, Langdon quickly explained to Sophie, everything he had heard about the keystone”. The phrase “quickly explains”, incidentally, occurs often enough to be irritating. A little later in the book we are told, “Seated on the divan besides Langdon, Sophie drank her tea and eat a scone, feeling the welcome effects of caffeine and food”. Or: “Silas turned to see Langdon holding the black cryptex before him, waving it back and forth like a matador tempting a dumb animal”.  Perhaps not dreadful but certainly pedestrian, and much of the book is like that. This is a best seller? As I said, there is no justice in the world.

Even greater literary crimes have been committed in Reilly’s book, Scarecrow. Before Scarecrow I had read Reilly’s earlier books, Temple (probably the best) and Ice Station, and the ordinary, albeit completely over the top, Area 7. Although I would not go as far as one commentator who exclaimed that Patrick White’s Nobel Prize should be stripped from him and handed to Reilly, Temple and Ice Station diverted me for a few hours.

However, the writing style in Scarecrow is schoolboyish. “Over by the Black Raven, Aloysius Knight and Rufus just stood in the rain, watching the fight like stunned spectators.” (He means Knight and Rufus watched the fight, stunned.). “Like an invading army overwhelming its enemy’s lines, an unimaginable quantity of seawater came gushing in over the threshold of the Talbot’s wide starboard-side doorway.” (If its “unimaginable” then I won’t try to imagine it.)

Writing style, fortunately for me as well, is but one part of any writer’s bag of tricks. The real skill both writers have is to keep switching the narrative; breaking it just as the heroes have been plunged into some particularly dreadful scrape, or have just discovered something, but without the readers being told what it is. This trick keeps the readers turning pages. ‘Well, what did they discover? What happens to the heroes?’ And so on. It is just like the old Saturday matinee series, where an episode may end as the hero’s car rolls off a cliff. The audience had to come back the following week to see the next instalment which, sure enough, starts by showing the hero leaping clear of the car, just before it goes over the cliff.


It also helps to be completely over the top. In Reilly’s Scarecrow, for example, one scenario involves the hero defusing a bomb by remote while in a mini-submarine on the bottom of the English Channel, just as a supertanker sinks on top of it, crushing the vessel. Needless to say he escapes. That is one of the more believable scenes. Brown’s Da Vinci Code is mercifully free of extreme action scenes but the various twists and turns, in the end, may make readers wonder why they bothered – that is, by the time they get to the end, of course.

Perhaps this is where I really fail, I don’t have the courage to make up “facts” to suit my story. I might have to stick to column writing.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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