Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Puzzle-like Plots: “Angels & Demons”

Before my summer trip to Rome I re-read Angels & Demons by Dan Brown and it reminded me how well Brown crafts puzzle-like plots. I’ve always liked his thrillers because they involve history and religion. But the key for me is the puzzle at the heart of each story. Here’s what I mean. (Minor *SPOILERS* to follow.)

The Set Up

Angles & Demons begins with a murder at CERN, a massive physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. The murdered scientist, who was also a Catholic priest, has been branded with the lost symbol of the Illuminati, a secret society dating back to the 1500s. The Illuminati opposed the Church because of its persecutions of outspoken scientists like Galileo and Copernicus. But over time, the Illuminati grew violent and sought to bring about the obliteration of the Catholic Church.

Enter Brown’s hero, Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology Robert Langdon, who CERN brings in to identify the Illuminati symbol. He’s soon paired with the victim’s beautiful daughter Vittoria Vetra. She and her father had been working on an experiment to prove the creation event in the book of Genesis was possible – creating matter from nothing. The experiment worked, but just as God created light and dark, their experiment created matter and antimatter. This plot point plays into the book’s primary theme, the conflict between science and religion, which makes the Illuminati the novel’s ideal antagonists.

Vittoria and Langdon quickly learn that a canister of antimatter has been stolen by the murderer. Even worse, it’s now hidden somewhere in the Vatican. When the canister’s battery runs out in 24 hours, the antimatter will explode with the force of a five kiloton bomb. The race against time is on!

St. Peter's Basilica
As soon as the setting moves to Vatican City, the puzzle-like plot kicks into full gear. The papal conclave has begun to replace the late pope, so the College of Cardinals has gathered in the Sistine Chapel. The situation gets worse when a servant of the Illuminati reveals the group has kidnapped the four top candidates to succeed the pope and plans on killing them one by one, each in a church no less. The problem is there are more than 400 churches and chapels in Rome.

The Puzzle

After ruminating on the killer’s cryptic words, Langdon realizes there is something in the Vatican Archives that may help – a book written by Galileo, one of the original Illuminati. The Illuminati created a map to direct their members to their sanctuary in Rome. Called the “Path to Illumination,” the map consisted of a series of concealed markers in locations throughout the city. But, of course, the markers form a puzzle that must be solved! In fact, Vittoria even calls it a “treasure hunt” – and who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt? (I promise you, I do!)

Could this be one of the Altars of Science?
The markers are disguised as religious statues, though each one is a subtle tribute to the four elements of Seventeenth Century science: earth, air, fire, and water. The churches that housed these statues were called the “Altars of Science”—a term used by the killer to note the place where each cardinal would meet his end. 

The puzzle itself is a riddle written in Galileo’s book by fellow suspected Illuminati, John Milton:
From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole,
‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.
The path of light is laid, the sacred test,
Let angels guide you on your lofty quest.
Nearly every word in the riddle has meaning and each is a clue to solving the puzzle. Even better, some of the words have multiple meanings, giving rise to red herrings. This makes solving the riddle even more challenging, and Brown plays this well. Langdon never guesses right the first time, but rather must deduce the answer by learning from his misassumptions and the evidence he finds along the way. All the while, the killer is carrying out his plot to kill the four cardinals, and trying to stop Langdon and Vittoria in the process.

Most importantly, when the riddle is finally solved, the answer seems credible. While Brown plays lots of word games and engages in plenty of misdirection, the riddle’s ultimate meaning fits the facts. It never seems contrived, so the reader never feels cheated. That, I believe, is the most important element of a great puzzle-like plot. 

The Pantheon - a clue or a red herring?

Science and Religion

In addition to the puzzle-like plot, Angels & Demons has, in my view, the best theme of any of his Robert Langdon novels. Langdon is an academic unable to make the “leap of faith” required by religion. Meanwhile, Vittoria believes in a harmony between religion and science, recalling one of her father’s favorite sayings:
To round out the debate, Brown gives us a Vatican priest who believes science will be the death of religion. The debate plays out well, albeit with a heavier hand in favor of what the reader may assume are Brown’s own view. Vittoria sums up this view best:
“Religion is like language or dress. We gravitate toward the practices with which we were raised. In the end, though, we are all proclaiming the same thing. That life has meaning. That we are grateful for the power that created us.”
Regardless of how you feel about this debate, it adds an extra element to the story that elevates it beyond just a great puzzle-like plot. That is something I always appreciate, and frankly it’s something Dan Brown tends to do very well.

But those are just my thoughts, and I’m always curious about yours: Do you enjoy puzzle-like plots, and how did you feel about Angles & Demons?

PS – a special thanks to everyone who helped make the BookSends promotion for Enoch’s Device a success, especially if you recommended it to a friend! I hope these new readers enjoy the book and its own puzzle-like plot.

* Photos courtesy of my iPhone.

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