Mr Brown Fried My Brain

Reading & Writing

He does have his own style, though, and it’s hilarious.

There are authors you avoid because you just know you’re not going to get along with them. EL James, the well known erotic typist, is one. Joan Collins fought (and won) in court to prove that her delivered book was not ‘unreadable’, on which she’s technically correct in that it consists of readable words placed in front of each other – check out the full story in the rather splendid latest series of ‘Urban Myths’. ‘The Girl On The Train’ nearly put me off crime novels for life, and ‘The Woman in the Window’ was an outrageously lazy reworking of ‘Rear Window’ minus the suspense, but these are not ‘unreadable’, merely serviceable and rudimentary.

The trouble is, authors think they’re so smart. They talk about deep meanings in interviews and think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. We are the heroes fighting the enemy of ignorance. In fact, when I step outside myself I see a neurasthenic over-sensitive liberal weed who’s a cross between Aubrey Beardsley and Ronald Firbank. Not exactly Conan the Barbarian. Therefore I have no right to prejudge anyone or anything until I’ve come to terms with it/them.

And trashy novelists are not ‘bad’ novelists. Faced with describing a nuclear holocaust a bad writer can make it sound as interesting as peeling a potato. But a good trash novelist will put every moment of the action into exclamation points. Who could resist Harold Robbins’ ‘The Carpetbaggers’ or Sidney Sheldon’s ‘The Other Side of Midnight’? The salacious pulps have been consigned to history by Netflix-generation shockers.

Mr Dan Brown has been the Mount Kilimanjaro of books the critics hate, but before I could pronounce judgement I thought I should give him a fair hearing. I tackled ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Origin’ (skimming a hell of a lot) and here’s what I found.

Mr Brown’s books are like those very long Hollywood films where you can nip out for a pee or an ice cream and come back to find that nothing has really happened. Oh, a lot happens in the sense that people move from A to B, but mostly it’s just Crystal Maze acrostics, running about unlocking doors. Plentiful action doesn’t necessarily mean story advancement.

He does have his own style, though, and it’s hilarious. By giving every development and every character equal weight and no internal life he creates a sort of two dimensional version of a book. People and places pass by as if printed on wallpaper, and none stays in the retina longer than the time it takes to look at it.

His stylistic tics have been much discussed; are they accidental or deliberate? It’s hard to find so many adjectives and adverbs on a single page anywhere else. Clearly he has never met a modifier he didn’t like, and this makes his style easy to mimic. Every single thing in the books is described as if nobody has any knowledge of it. I’m amazed he doesn’t write, ‘the Harvard professor of symbology picked up a spoon, a dining tool with a metal handle and a hollowed oval end frequently used for drinking soup.’

And he literally uses ‘literally’ on every page.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been to most of the places his goggle-eyed hero, Robert Langdon, visits in mouth-dropped wonder, so I have to jump reams of what-I-did-on-my-holidays research on churches and art galleries, because Mr Brown is simply regurgitating the capsule knowledge printed beneath each tourist sight.

His hero Langdon is a fascinating character, possessing only rudimentary academic knowledge, deeply conservative, aghast at anything modern – you can imagine his moué when presented with avant-garde art – and is I suppose Mr Brown’s attempt to align himself with his readers. Robert is an odd hero, perpetually lectured to but only tentatively leading. This technique not only reduces him to a student but us too, so that we’re all getting lectures from experts until we reach the point where Langdon has to take over the narrative just to remind us he’s still there. He’s the opposite of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, who is definitely a Man Who Enjoys Being In Charge. Robert is a Man Who Doesn’t Much Like What’s Going On.

The Brown style has evolved between the novels, the former being more like Donald Trump’s texts, transparent and short on syllables. The latter is peppered – literally in the sense that one feels as though he has shaken them over a page – with terminology, the problem being that these (‘docent’ is a uniquely American term for a museum guide, it transpires) stick out in the dead text like unflattened nails. And he literally uses ‘literally’ on every page.

The plots are template; a big secret has been hidden for millennia by churches, artists and scientists in order to outrage Catholics in the late 20th century. Still, ‘Code’ got up the Vatican’s nose enough for them to issue a rebuttal of its founding thesis, the old chestnut about Christ’s bloodline, and Brown won his case against the writers of ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ because it was argued that technically speaking he only lifted historical facts (although I personally think he was very close to the boundary between research and theft).

He repeats himself with ‘Origin’ because we’re ahead of his game now and can see the punchline coming down the track. As one reviewer pointed out, it’s a TED talk with a plot. Readers briefly believed his pulp fiction raised important points (the Vatican’s misjudged involvement raised the ‘Da Vinci’ game) but now we can go back to leaving them on hotel bookshelves, covered in sun cream. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


17 comments on “Mr Brown Fried My Brain”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    I gave The Da Vinci Code a try, but abandoned after c.100 pages. I now lazily group Dan Brown with Jeffrey Archer as an author popular only with “the people”: I’m reminded of being warned off films promoted by shots of gurning people outside cinemas, meaning that no decent professional reviews were available.

  2. I’m new to your books but am loving them and have read nearly all in the last week or two. Fantastic fun. Love your comments on Dan Brown — like a lot of people I tried to give him a try but cracked the first ‘code’ (an anagram, if memory serves) in 5 seconds and wanted to kill him for ‘without wax’. Also love your comments on “Girl on a Train” and “Woman at the Window” or whatever it was called — but what about “Gone Girl”? A contender for worst ‘crime’ novel ever? Thanks for cheering me up. When you have ME/CFS, you need a good laugh. Off to bed with Bryant and May now.

  3. Brooke says:

    Really upset that I spent anytime reading this post about Brown. So I will be a witch…
    Docent is not just a museum guide; one has to be trained and able to conduct a knowledgeable, well-researched presentation about a particular aspect of art to the satisfaction of a curator.
    TED talks always have a plot–a point of view, beginning, middle and end.
    If you have time on your hands, at least read something informative, .e.g. sexual habits of the British

  4. Richard Harvey says:

    Dan Brown’s descriptions are straight out of the Russian State assassin’s textbook. They contain wikipedia style details as a kind of nod to having done proper research.

  5. admin says:

    Nice one Brooke!
    Meredith, they’re pretty much all anagrams. Try the GCHQ quiz books (apparently really set by GCHQ boffins) – I can’t answer a single question in any of them!

  6. Line B says:

    I have a problem. Well, ok I am human so I have a lot of them. But this particular problem is that I need suggestions on good writers. I have a dry spell on (in? sorry…) my Storytel-readinglist. I blame Mr Fowler and Mr Goodman, because everything I try to read and listen to feels dismal, grey and uninspiring after listening to his latest book. It feels like there are more Dan Browns out there than really good writers. Or maybe I’m just having problems with some of the people reading the books, like Gordon Griffin (sorry Gordon, but you and I can not have a date over a glas of wine, my bones curl when Gordon reads the women characters).
    Please help.

  7. snowy says:

    Line B you will be deluged with suggestions all better than mine, but just for a kick off something light I recently re-read.

    One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre.

    Uninvited guests crash a party, normally this would just be tiresome. But when the party is on a converted oil-rig moored offshore, miles from land and the interlopers are armed with rocket launchers you know that the night is not going to go well. Contains thrills, spills, romance, severed body parts and lots and lots of swearing.

    It begins:

    “William Connor was standing outside a disused cattleshed on a bright Highland summers morning, ankle deep in cowsh:t, liquidised mercenary raining splashily down about his head from the crisp blue sky above. He wasn’t an overly superstitious man, but this was precisely the sort of thing that tended to make him wonder whether fate wasn’t trying to drop just the subtlest of hints.”

    [My complete lack of regard for the works of Mr Brown have been aired here before and don’t bear repeating.]

  8. Line B says:

    Snowy thank you! In return I will give you a useful frase in swedish (because in sweden we have lots of weird expressions) ”Dan Brown kan slänga sig i väggen” (Dan Brown can throw himself in the wall).

  9. Ian Luck says:

    I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ as it was lying about at a work site, and I thought: ‘Just how bad could it be?’ It chugged along quite inoffensively for many pages, and was put down for tea, pee, and (frequent) laughter breaks, and, noting how much of a boring shift it had helped lose, I was grudgingly starting to enjoy it slightly, but thinking it was basically Lincoln and Baigent’s book with a bit too much exposition and crappy anagrams – when it suddenly ended. I like to think that Mr Brown was sitting at his desk, wax crayon in hand, scribbling away like billy-o, when his friends outside invited him for a kickabout down the park, and so as not to miss out, he gave the book it’s lovely abrupt ending, so he could go outside, and play with his mates. I was given another of his books by a work mate. I read some of the blurb on the back, and started to lose the will to live, and put it in the charity bag for collection. If you are interested in the Holy Grail stuff, then the best book that I have read on the subject – it is intriguing, even if it is utter B/S in reality, as it encompasses a great many fascinating, and weird, though possibly unconnected strands, is the 2005 book ‘Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail’, by Christopher Dawes. Who would have thought that the iconic drummer of original punk band The Damned would be interested in such a subject? I say that if Captain Sensible can have a railway locomotive named after him, then Rat Scabies can hunt the Holy Grail.

  10. Martin Tolley says:

    Line B, almost anything by Kate Atkinson. “Boxer Beetle” by ned Beauman

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Brooke. I was a museum docent for 18 years and proud of it. I did introductory navigation in the Maritime Museum for grade 5s, basic archaeology for grade 7, Vancouver history for grade 5 and First Nations culture and life for grade 4. We had a month of lectures 5 days a week in Sept. and were encouraged to read and research anything that involved our program. We weren’t “tour guides” at all.
    How do you feel about Eco? I enjoyed The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum but the third book (Renaissance wars in Italy and the fall of Byzantium) got to me and I didn’t finish it. A friend asked me if I was reading Pendulum in the original and I had to admit I can’t do Italian. She wanted to discuss it but was reading the original. There are quite a few people who don’t want to try Eco; I’ve heard him called pretentious probably by people who don’t want to tackle his vocabulary, but he puts a lot into the writing. We have the usual problem in that we are judging a translator rather than the author.

  12. Brooke says:

    Yes, Umberto Eco is a must read; but I would tackle his essays first. I enjoyed “On Literature.”

    Line B: have you a copy of Mr. Fowler’s Forgotten Authors? Many of the ‘forgotten” mystery/crime writers’ best have been republished. And before you purchase, you can check this site for opinions. Also, authors in the British Library Crime series, edited by Martin Edwards. Many thanks for the very useful phrase…will work diligently to learn how to pronounce words properly.

  13. Ken Mann says:

    Line B – Given that you already know about Christopher Fowler, might I suggest Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Contemporary spy fiction set in a recognisable London with a sense of humour that doesn’t overpower the drama.

  14. James B says:

    I am a big fan of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” with the clever structure, and his “The Bone Clocks” was good but could have been tightened by 100 pages.

    Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” is fantastic. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” won a pulitzer, I think, but I like Kavalier and Clay more.

    Everything I have read by Barbara Kingsolver has been good. “The Poisonwood Bible” has an interesting structure of mixed perspectives, somewhat echoed in “Prodigal Summer” but “The Lacuna” and “Flight Behavior” have both really stuck with me as well.

    For great fun I like Christoper Moore, particularly “Lamb” and “Noir” but I have had no misses from him.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Ken – ‘Slow Horses’ is wonderful. It’s main character, Jackson Lamb, is an overweight, slovenly, flatulent slob, with a mind like a steel trap. His staff, if American, would be the FBI’s Least Wanted. It’s a brilliant read, as are the rest of the series. And in places, laugh out loud funny.

  16. Alan Morgan says:

    The Da Vinci Code, an escape-room plot with less places to sit down and without the benefit of an hour cut off point.

  17. Tony Mac says:

    Christopher Fowler is now at the top of my author list. But he’s not alone.

    Another good crime author is M.R.C. Kasasian who wrote the “Gower St Detective” series including “The Mangle Street Murders”. They’re different in style from the B&M novels, but, I feel, just as good.

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