Dan Brown, Angels and Demons (Pocket Books, 2000)

It's just as well that Dan Brown is a novelist, because if he were writing nonfiction conspiracy theories he'd probably have a host of followers in his own little cult. This year the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code has recruited fans to the theory that Jesus fathered a bloodline, causing a resurgence of interest in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and other books about the secret society that protects this stunning reality.

Angels and Demons has the same protagonist as The Da Vinci Code: Harvard professor Robert Langdon, an expert in symbology and arcane codes. This older novel also deals with a legendary secret society in opposition to the orthodox teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. At the start, Langdon receives a fax asking him to verify that the stylized brand burned into the chest of a scientist is the work of the Illuminati -- the centuries-old defenders of science and technology in the face of Vatican resistance. Since the era of Galileo, the Illuminati have promoted scientific research and abhorred blind devotion to the Church. But have the legendary Illuminati now come out of hiding to destroy the Church on the eve of the election of a new Pope? Or has someone else adopted the Illuminati name to gain power or fame?

Langdon might be the only one who can find out the truth. He has the help of Vittoria Vetra, the adopted daughter and lab partner of murdered scientist Leonardo Vetra -- who was also an ordained priest. Shortly before his death, Vetra used the particle accelerator at CERN (le Conseil Européen pour la Recherce Nucléaire, the European Council for Nuclear Research) in an attempt to reproduce Genesis. Astoundingly, he created matter from nothingness by colliding energy beams at extremely high speeds. "He proved," in the words of Vittoria, "that matter can be created from nothing... that the Big Bang and Genesis can be explained."

But though Leonardo Vetra kept his research top-secret, someone evidently learned of both his discovery and its deadly byproduct: highly explosive antimatter, which was captured by Vittoria and suspended in canisters with magnetic fields. The largest canister has been stolen by Leonardo's murderer. In twenty-four hours, when its battery pack runs out, the canister's antimatter will come into contact with matter and explode, destroying an area roughly the size of Vatican City. Not coincidentally, a mysterious canister has appeared on a hidden camera inside Vatican City, where the College of Cardinals is convening to elect a new Pope.

The Illuminati have sworn to destroy the Church, and their assassin means to prove his commitment by killing four Cardinals on the altars of science that once composed the trail to the secret lair of the Illuminati. Langdon believes that the Swiss Guard of the Vatican may be able to capture and interrogate the killer if they can follow the ancient Path of Illumination to the altars, each of which honors one of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. So begins a chase through Rome, giving Langdon a crash course in architecture, art history and archaeology as well as a very unpleasant education in methods of torture.

As with The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church is portrayed fairly negatively. Though most of the religious characters are empathetic, the exceptions have been so dramatically damaged by faith that it's hard not to think the Church itself is being condemned, not only for historic wrongs against scientists but as a powerful, meddling modern institution. I also suspect that the connections between Illuminati symbols, Masonic engravings and the images on U.S. dollar bills have been exaggerated; for all the scoffs by characters that secret societies like the Illuminati no longer exist and that this resurgence must be an elaborate recreation, there's plenty of fodder for American conspiracy buffs.

Still, even without knowing what's true and what's conceit by the author, it's exciting to read about how Italian Illuminati wrote in English because it was the one language the ancient clergy considered beneath them, and how secret tunnels still connect Vatican City to distant corners of Rome. Because he's writing a novel, Brown can get away with fudging facts somewhat; only experts in Vatican history and Catholic tradition are likely to get snagged by unrealistic details until near the end.

Structurally, Angels and Demons unfolds in very much the same style as The Da Vinci Code, with villains disguised as benefactors and the examination of ancient manuscripts in libraries (in this case including a unique document by Galileo with an unknown poem by John Milton hidden inside). The novel's exposition is fairly typical of genre thrillers, with short exclamatory paragraphs during action sequences interspersed with lengthier meditations on the philosophical issues raised by the story. Just when the reader is feeling wired on action, there's a pause for meditation, yet before that can get too ponderous, the pace surges again.

As a thriller, Angels and Demons proves a bit of a disappointment, for the red herrings are predictable and the guilty party's motivations are difficult for most modern readers to relate to personal experiences. But until that point, the story is told so stylishly that it hardly matters. Much of the plot involves a hunt for visual clues among the churches of Rome, permitting colorful architectural descriptions and witty chase scenes involving the meddlesome press. The characters include mad scientists and religious fanatics, theologians who are also physicists and a Pope entangled in a shocking heresy... people damaged by technology and spirituality, people saved by them.

Where The Da Vinci Code is filled with word games and cryptographic jokes, this older novel is more interested in ambigrams -- phrases that read the same upside down or right-side up, an ancient calligraphic technique attributed to Illuminati masters. And if the ongoing reversals of religion and science, matter and antimatter, good and evil, light and dark seem rather simplistic in the end, it doesn't stop Angels and Demons from being a fast, fun read.

[Michelle Erica Green]

Author Dan Brown's Web site is here.