'Da Vinci Code' spawns a genre

Reviewer Yvonne Zipp compares four novels trying to replicate the success of Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code.'

While Umberto Eco claimed that "a sure sign of a lunatic is that sooner or later, he brings up the Templars," these days, it's also a sure sign of a bestseller.

It's rare that a book sparks its own subspecies. But in much the same way that "Bridget Jones's Diary" launched a raft of pastel-colored "chick lit," Dan Brown's wildly successful "The Da Vinci Code" - 40 million copies sold and counting - has given rise to a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.

With "Code" finally out in paperback this week, the Monitor decided to cruise through four new entries in the Grail genre.

The novels range from historical to historical fantasy to straight-on thriller, but all crib from what's known about the Cathars, a Christian sect brutally suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century. Among their beliefs, the Cathars taught that individuals could pray directly to God, rather than requiring an intermediary. This, rather than their vegetarianism, probably led to a suppression so brutal that two of the books claim it's the origin of that delightful saying, "Kill them all, and let God sort them out."

The other group of "heretics" vital to the genre are the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. This won't fit on a book spine, so the thrillers opt for the "Templar" moniker. In 1307, Philip IV of France charged the Order with heresy, in theory so that he could get his hands on their vast treasure.

Templars were tortured and burned at the stake, but the treasure - and a secret artifact that they were rumored to be guarding - was never found. (The Templars are the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition, since they were arrested on Friday, Oct. 13.)

Labyrinth, by Kate Mosse

A volunteer on an archaeological dig stumbles onto a cave with two skeletons, strange carvings, and a stone ring. After her discovery, Alice Tanner starts having dreams about a 13th-century woman whose father was charged with protecting three very important books as the French descend on the Pyrenees to wipe out the Cathars. Medieval life in the Languedoc region is brought vividly to life, and Mosse manages to integrate her research smoothly into the tale. Fans of fantasy and historical romance are the most likely to enjoy the tale, which relies on reincarnation, ancient spells, and other genre conventions. Grade: B-

The Last Templar, by Raymond Khoury

Four armored horsemen ride out of Central Park, and, sadly, this isn't a scene from "Elf." Instead, it's the least inspired of the "Da Vinci Code" knockoffs - whose plot reads like a checklist cribbed from Brown's bestseller. Murder in a museum? Check. (Khoury substitutes New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Louvre.) Desperate search for a Templar legend? Check. Roman Catholic coverup? Check. "Secret" that will knock the socks off moldy old Christian theology? An eye-rolling check. Khoury even gives his heroine - a "hottie" archaeologist - the same color eyes as Sophie from "Da Vinci." Sadly, he skips the puzzles that made "Da Vinci" such a fun read, instead substituting a higher body count. The result is derivative, bloody, and badly written. Grade: D

The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry

Berry earned his bona fides as a thriller writer years ago, and it shows in his well-paced, efficiently written "Legacy." Also, he deserves kudos for daring to have a female heroine in her 60s. Stephanie Nelle has come to Europe seeking answers to Templar lore that had left her estranged from both her husband and her only son. Now that both are dead, she's carrying on with their work. Coming to her aid is a former Justice Department field agent, Cotton Malone, who resides in Copenhagen. Trailing them are two shadowy figures, Raymond de Roquefort, a cold-hearted killer, and a Muslim woman, both of whom have their own plans for the secret. None of the characters are particularly well carved, and a veteran like Berry should know better than to name a bad guy after cheese. Still, fans of the genre will find plenty to enjoy, at least until the over-the-top ending. Grade: B-

The Secret Supper, by Javier Sierra

An international bestseller, "Supper" is a historical novel examining coded symbols that Leonardo Da Vinci may have hidden in his "Last Supper." Thankfully eschewing the man-and-woman-chasing-all-over-Europe-after-clues-to-the-Holy-Grail formula, Sierra sets his novel firmly in Milan, Italy, in 1497. Roman Catholic Inquisitor Agostino Leyre has been sentto the monastery where Da Vinci is finishing his masterpiece to investigate rumors that the artist has concealed a heretical message in his supposedly Christian painting. Meanwhile, "beggars" are being murdered at the site of another Da Vinci painting, "Madonna of the Rocks." Both works will be familiar to "Code" readers, which is this well-researched novel's biggest stumbling point. Still, Sierra combines Cathar lore, anagrams, and Latin puzzles to a satisfying conclusion. Grade: B

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