Origin, by Dan Brown (2017)

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Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code caused a storm when it was released and was the runaway bestseller of 2003. As well as three sequels, it spawned a thousand wannabe copycat efforts and a trilogy of motion pictures starring Tom Hanks as Brown’s main protagonist, Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon.

Critics derided the literary merits of The Da Vinci Code, and not without reason. But Brown had found a way of successfully combining serious academic research into topics that people wouldn’t ordinarily read about, with a fast-paced page-turning conspiracy thriller style that sold by the million. While I thought Da Vinci was itself a bit pompous and self-important, I really liked the first book in the Langdon series – Angels and Demons – despite the wildly improbable helicopter-flying, skydiving would-be pontiff saving the Vatican from nuclear annihilation.

Sadly, I think that the runaway success of The Da Vinci Code has since rather ruined Brown as a writer. The immediate follow-up entitled The Lost Symbol took him five years to write and stuck closely to formula, using left-over research from the previous book and featuring an absurdly grotesque and unbelievable supervillain who ends up dying purely by accident to leave time for a desperately weak final ‘reveal’ about the secrets of Freemasons that anyone with any sense could have predicted almost from the start.

Inferno followed in 2013, and late last year came Origin. In this latest tale, Langdon travels to Spain to attend a media event presented by his old friend, tech entrepreneur Edmond Kirsch, who is about to unveil a revolutionary new theory on the origins of life that will – or so he believes – put paid to all world religions and faiths once and for all.

The first hundred pages or so of set-up are actually pretty decent, doing that trademark thing of making Brown’s research into the subject into something that doesn’t feel too much like a lecture – even when that’s exactly what it is. It’s rather strange when the best part of a book is a written description of what is in essence just a multimedia PowerPoint presentation!

After that, circumstances thwart the big announcement and send Langdon off in pursuit of the truth, while being pursued by both police and those determined to cover up the secret at all costs. In other words, exactly the same plot Brown has used in all his Langdon novels since The Da Vinci Code. The only difference here is that it’s desperately thin: the previous books might have had two or three different levels of conspiracy to juggle with, but this barely manages even one. As a result, attempts at fast-paced cutting between one threat and another are either missing or fall flat, and rather than being a page-turner this starts to inspire boredom and impatience.

There’s a whole strand revolving around the Spanish Royal Family that feels completely disconnected from the main plot. You keep waiting for it to link up and pay off, but it never does. It really is a totally different story Brown wanted to tell, here simply jammed in to provide a vague sense of being a red herring and to get the book up to length. It totally fails to work.

Meanwhile Langdon gets to do his usual sight-seeing dash through various real-life tourist destinations. Brown doesn’t give him much to figure out in the way of symbology other than recognising an Uber logo. Eventually we get spat out at the ending, which at least isn’t as risible as that of The Last Symbol but which is nonetheless inevitably a damp squib – there’s nothing that would have given religious leaders any sleepless nights, and is already pretty well known stuff anyway. It all feels rather a waste of time.

A key problem is that Brown doesn’t seem to know what to do with one of the main characters of the book, that of Kirsch’s loyal assistant Winston. There’s no sense of personality, just a voice on the phone, and as such it robs the book of any sense of depth or layers. Maybe if Brown had been more interested in Winston and his motivations, and brought in a little uncertainty as to what’s going on, then this would have been a better read. But to be honest, I rather doubt it: until the author can free himself from the ossified formula he laid down in The Da Vinci Code, his follow-up efforts will continue to be of fast-dwindling interest even to his loyal fans.

Rating: ★ ★

Origin is out in hardback and e-book around the world.

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