Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dan Brown for non-dummies

It's perhaps reassuring that the hype around the latest Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol, died away rather quickly (albeit leaving record sales in the process).  I don't particularly share the usual critical negativity about Brown - though this may be because I've never ventured beyond The Da Vinci Code.  And, in truth, I only read that because there was a copy in a holiday cottage we rented a year or two back.  The book struck me as splendidly silly and, at times, almost wilfully badly written (the Daily Telegraph once produced a highly entertaining 'Top 20' of Brown's worst sentences).  But, in fairness, I finished the book in a few hours and felt no particular inclination to put it down, which is what you expect from a thriller.  I'd describe him as an adult Enid Blyton except that I think that, for a host of reasons, Blyton's a much more interesting writer.  But more of that some other time.

I mention Brown because his name floated into my head while reading Andrew Grieg's intriguing novel, Romanno Bridge.  I'd picked up the book partly because I've had a couple of other Grieg novels sitting on my 'to be read' pile for ages and hadn't got round to them (and if you ask why I didn't just read those, then you're obviously not a true book-buyer), and partly because I'd regularly driven past the village of Romanno Bridge on drives to Edinburgh and was intrigued by the name.  Mostly, though, it was because the book had a fascinating premise, prompted by the 1950 theft of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey.  The book plot draws on the idea - which has some roots in legend, if not necessarily in historical fact - that, not only was the Stone replaced by a fake after the theft, but that the Stone itself was only a surrogate for an older, more ornate Coronation Stone. 

At one level, this is just the McGuffin around which Grieg builds a thriller involving a raft of intriguing characters.  At the same time, though, the book is also a meditation on Scotland and Scottishness.  Beyond that, in line with its Borders setting, the book is also a tribute to the work of John Buchan.  It's a sequel (or, at least, includes the same characters as) Grieg's earlier more explicit tribute toBuchan, The Return of John Macnab

The plot parallels with the Dan Brown oeuvre are evident, and it's illuminating how differently two writers can treat superficially similar material.  If Brown writes spectacularly badly, Grieg writes beautifully, evoking the Scottish setting with a poet's touch.  If Brown ends every chapter on a cliff hanger, Grieg is not afraid, even at the most tense points, to slip away from the narrative into leisurely digression.  If Brown's characters are two-dimensional, Grieg's quickly become real - even the psychopathic killer who stalks the plot has an interest in ornithology.

I suspect that some readers may find that the book sits awkwardly between thriller and literary novel.  Personally, though, I was enthralled by its quirky charm.  And now I really should get round to those other Grieg books on my shelves. 


1. Lewis Peters said...

Having toyed with buying the latest Dan Brown I was admirably brought to my senses by an article in the The First Post which suggested alternative reads. Hence I have just finished both The Dying Light by Henry Porter and The Twelve by Stuart Neville. Very different but both brilliant in their own way. Real inspiration.

2. Michael Walters said...

Thanks for the comment, Lewis. My apologies for the delay in posting it - I've been travelling without internet access for a couple of days so just catching up. I've a lot of time for Henry Porter (not least because he gets an accidental but oddly appropriate namecheck in Dylan's 'Brownsville Girl'), and I've heard very good things about 'The Twelve' so must get round to that soon. Either sounds a good alternative to DB!

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