It all began, for me, with The Name of the Rose.
I read it as a teenager, probably too young to understand it all, but was immediately captivated by the hermetic world of a monastery beset by the Inquisition. The literati, I am sure, would baulk at the idea of Umberto Eco even being mentioned in the same breath as Dan Brown; but the two writers do have something in common. The Name of the Rose had, at its dark heart, a mystery. A riddle. The Name of the Rose, though a difficult and very literary novel, began a trend; the code novel was born.
After this baptism of fire, plague and all the other evils of the Apocalypse, I began to seek out historical treasure hunts. This was at a time when artist and jewel-making genius Kit Williams hit on the idea of tying in a literal treasure hunt to a book; Williams created a golden gem in the shape of a hare, hung about with moonstones and pearls, and buried it somewhere on public land in the English countryside. The whole of England went, briefly, treasure mad, and pored over the pages of Masquerade – still one of the most beautiful books I have ever read – forensically scrutinizing the exquisite illustrations for clues.
Then came perhaps my favourite treasure hunt novel of all; Landscape of Lies by Peter Watson. I was captivated by the plot of an art dealer who stumbled upon an obscure painting, and gradually realized that what he had found was a treasure map. The edition I read recreated the painting on the front and back cover, rendered in very fine detail, and you could spot the clues along with protagonist Michael Whiting. Erudite but fast paced, this remains my favourite in the burgeoning crop of ‘treasure hunt’ novels.
I continued to seek out code books; and then, of course, in the early noughties, the ultimate code novel appeared. I did, I admit, love The Da Vinci Code when it came out – by some strange accident I read it before the hype reached me, and really enjoyed it (although I do still prefer Angels and Demons). It had all that I required, a page turning mystery, a setting that interested me, and I learned along the way.
Since then I’ve read some code books that are silly but enormous fun; and that’s all right too. You don’t want to read The Name of the Rose every day, and code books are ideal models opportunities for a bit of light escapism. The Shakespeare Secret, The Righteous Men, The Medici Secret, The Last Templar; all of them fall in to this category. They are not necessarily hugely historically accurate, but you certainly turn the pages. Some code books are more erudite – I’m guessing that Dan Brown’s latest work might have more than a little in common with Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, where a mysterious assassin stalks post-Civil War Boston dispatching his victims with the hellish punishments featured in Dante’s Inferno. Pearl’s novel is given an intriguing twist by the fact that the investigators in the story are Boston’s finest poets – Longfellow and Lowell included – turned detective. And if you miss a bit of monastic mystery, try The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra. Inquisitor Father Augustino undertakes an investigation of the same painting at the centre of the Da Vinci Code; Leonardo’s Last Supper. This book, too, has a wonderfully rendered ‘gatefold’ cover with the painting on it, so that when reading about the ‘clues’ you can constantly refer to the artwork itself. I myself was very excited when the Uffizi Gallery in Florence agreed to license Botticelli’s Primavera to me for the cover of my own code book The Botticelli Secret. And even more excited when the Uffizi gift shop stocked the book, stacked in the shelves three floor below the real thing.
There are even codes within the code books. If you read enough of them you begin to see a pattern. There is often a man – usually some sort of expert – hooking up with a beautiful woman on the quest. These men, the antecedents and successors to Brown’s Robert Langdon, always seem to be making the vital discoveries and explaining complicated points of history to their decorative female sidekicks. In Brown’s work Langdon has a Captain Kirk tendency to change his girlfriends for each book. Maybe things did not work out with Sophie Neveu from the Da Vinci code. Maybe it was the in-laws…you know, the Nazareths.
Kathy Reichs subverted the trope by making her female protagonist – Temperance Brennan – an expert in her field, who would make all the major discoveries ahead of the men. When I wrote my own code novel The Botticelli Secret, I too followed the guy/gal prototype. Here too the man was the ‘expert’ – novice monk and all-round know-it-all Brother Guido. But my heroine was a street-wise Florentine whore; Luciana Vetra. She was essentially ignorant, and could not quote Ficino or Poliziano as Guido could, but was worldly where Guido was sheltered and innocent. In Renaissance Italy street-smarts were essential, so I tried to destabilize the idea of the male expert leading the chase – Guido had to defer to Luciana as often as she did to him. In fact, Guido could not have gone twenty steps without Luciana – he would have been dead in a day.
All code books have a ‘treasure.’ Sometimes it’s literally a hoard of coins. Sometimes (as in The Botticelli Secret and The Da Vinci Code) the treasure is a secret, a secret so great it will change the character’s world. As for Kit William’s golden hare from Masquerade, I can’t actually remember if, or where, the treasure was found.
It hardly matters. The fun is in the journey.
Ten Code Books
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Landscape of Lies – Peter Jackson
The Righteous Men – Sam Bourne
The Secret Supper – Javier Sierra
The Shakespeare Secret – JL Carrell
The Medici Secret – Michael White
The Dante Club – Matthew Pearl
The Last Templar – Raymond Khoury
Cross bones – Kathy Reichs
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
…And the most beautiful picture book in the world, Masquerade by Kit Williams