book review! – angels and demons, by dan brown

In the beginning of Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code, super-duper “code breaker” (because symbologist just doesn’t sufficiently cover his mad skills) Robert Langdon’s phone rings in the middle of the night. A voice introducing itself as Maximilian Kohler tells Langdon to come to his lab immediately. Langdon hangs up and goes back to sleep. Then an image comes through Langdon’s fax machine that shows a dead body with what appears to be the word “Illuminati” branded across the chest. Illuminati is a historically clandestine organization that has a particular belief about religion v. science and evolution v. Creationism. Legendarily and violently, the Illuminati has promoted the conflict between science and religion. Langdon, recognizing the name, immediately hops on a plane and does what the voice tells him. Two things are certain: fax machines do not have the greatest picture quality, and only an idiot would accept that image as a fact without considering that the photograph might not be genuine. (see: Photoshop, Miss California)

Kohler is confined to a motorized wheelchair with more gadgets than a Rolls Royce and runs a lab called CERN, a nuclear research facility in Geneva, Switzerland. Within CERN is a private laboratory to which only two people have access: the recently murdered Leonardo Vetra and his daughter Vittoria. When Leonardo is found not just dead but missing an eye in his suite at CERN, Kohler calls not the police but Langdon and Vittoria instead. What follows is over 400 pages of setups and prefab-coincidences that happen so regularly that any competent reader will quickly get annoyed. Only the father and daughter Vetra team have access to their private lab, thanks to a retina scanner for identification and entry. When Kohler leads Langdon and Miss Vetra to their lab door following the murder, Langdon sees an eyeball on the floor near the door. Kohler tells Miss Vetra that he has already searched their lab. She quietly opens the lab and without noticing either the eye on the floor nor the statement by Kohler that he has been in the Vetra’s private lab. Did she forget that only she and her father had access to the lab? Shouldn’t she have said, “Yo, buddy, how’d you manage to get in? Perhaps you pulled out my father’s eyeball for the retina scan, the very eyeball that happens to be here on the floor.” Go, Sherlock, go.

Missing from the private Vetra lab is a canister that contains antimatter, a theoretical nuclear material that is suspended in a vacuum container, similar to the canisters that you send through the pneumatic system of a drive-thru bank. In order to keep the material suspended, Father and Daughter Vetra created a electro-magnetic field inside the canister. It has a little clock to indicate the time that the power will run out after it has been removed from the charging system. If the battery dies and the antimatter collides with the container, it will wipe out life within a mile radius.

Meanwhile, the recent pope has died, and the Vatican is in “conclave,” their process of selecting a new pope. Roman Catholic bigshots from far and wide gather at the Vatican to vote for a new pope, kind of like Miss Universe but without the swimsuit competition. Unfortunately, something else is also at the Vatican. The antimatter thief has managed to smuggle and hide the canister in the Vatican with the intent to wipe out the global leaders of the Catholic Church, now that they’re all conveniently behind the walls of Vatican City. What a merry coincidence. The guts of the movie involves Langdon and Vittoria following a trail of clues not left behind by the villain but assumed by Langdon after gaining access to the Vatican top super secret super library, which he has unsuccessfully attempted to visit numerous times in recent years.

Angels and Demons has too many contrivances and conveniences, which disallows the acceptance of the dramatic attempt. After only the first three pages, it is already clear that suspending belief would not be enough. It would have to be sold on E-bay. Dan Brown has created too many incidents in which the reader must look the other way and pretend not to see the obvious flaws that exist only as a convenience for a plot to continue. For example, the nuclear antimatter canister can only be a threat if someone knows that it’s hidden in the Vatican. The Illuminati didn’t make a YouTube video, so how does Langdon even know to look for it? It just so happens that the Vatican police, also known as the Swiss Guard, spotted someone walking into the Vatican with a canister that had a little digital clock on it. Naturally, that means the Illuminati smuggled antimatter inside. How could anyone possibly draw any other conclusion? Nobody in the world other than Father and Daughter Vetra even knows that these canisters exist, yet somehow the Swiss Guard knew to call Max Kohler at the CERN laboratory because a digital clock was on the surveillance tape. That leads to another question. When one smuggles an explosive device into the Vatican, would one allow it to appear on a surveillance tape? Wouldn’t one hide it in a Sponge Bob lunch box or camera bag? Wouldn’t one draw a little attention carrying a canister with a clock in the midst of a countdown?

Brown also spends a lot of time setting up a situation but holding back one piece of the puzzle, leading you to an “obvious” conclusion that is clearly not possible with only semi-careful reading. Such situations make you feel either like a genius for having figured something out or insulted that Brown would think he’s fooled you. Max Kohler immediately seems like the bad guy for having broken into the Vetra lab and not calling the police. Commander Olivetti of the Swiss Guard seems to have rogue tendencies, such as locking Langdon and Miss Vetra in his office and preventing them from talking to the Camerlengo. A cardinal is found dead where there should have been guards, but there weren’t any. Of course Olivetti must be responsible for pulling guards from their post. But don’t turn your back on the Camerlengo, assistant to the pope. They’re all bad guys, which means they aren’t all bad guys. In one scene, Kohler, in his motorized wheelchair, gets the Camerlengo behind a locked door. Then the Camerlengo screams as he is hit in the chest with a red-hot brandiron. Of course Kohler couldn’t have done it, and it’s insulting that Brown expects anyone to believe so. The red herring is way too red but not very herring.

There were also occasions of silliness. Miss Vetra was restrained, beaten, semi-conscious, and unable to open her eyes. However, just as the villain is about to knock Langdon off a balcony, Vetra somehow musters the strength to escape her bonds and save Langdon from certain death. The villain also possesses a legendary box of six brands used in torture by the Illuminati. As the villain chases him around a table in his secret lair, Langdon, who should be in fear of his life, notices there are only five brands in the box and demands that the villain tell him where the sixth brand is. Langdon at that point should only care about inhaling, exhaling, and his heartbeat, not demanding the location of a chunk of metal. After Langdon and Vetra escape from that villian, they take a secret tunnel into the Vatican but run into a locked door, as it has been for, oh, maybe a century. Oh good fortune abounds as the keys are waiting in the lock on the other side, thus allowing a curious guard to permit access to Langdon and Vetra. Don’t even ask about the camera woman and reporter who are able to stroll anywhere within the Vatican to film dead bodies without being stopped. Worse is when Langdon leaps from a helicopter more than a mile in the air by making a hanglider from one of those windshield screens that keeps the sun out of your car.

It’s possible to have a poor story but great narration, like some of Stephen King’s work, but that doesn’t exist either. The word “instinct” was scattered like dandelions to describe almost any physical movement by Langdon. Apparently he doesn’t know much of anything but can still do everything by instinct. Hearing the phrase “the hunter became the hunted” was cringe-worthy. An occasional mixed metaphor can be entertaining, such as “taking a back burner,” a hybrid of “taking a back seat” and being “put on the back burner.” A “pyre of flame” seemed redundant. The ending was worse than a soap opera because Langdon and Vetra have known each other for less than a full day, but that doesn’t stop them from passionately enjoying each other for breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, Angels and Demons lays an egg, but it doesn’t go over easy.

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