Simon and Schuster, March 2006, ISBN: 0743276299, £12.99
In this post Da-Vinci code world, we can expect a lot of publishers and a lot of books to be playing on the hype generated by Dan Brown's personal cash cow. We can probably also expect a lot of them to be unable to capture whatever the secret ingredient was that made the original Code a bestseller to begin with. At first glance, The Secret Supper looks to be cashing in. It has all the elements: conspiracy, the painter himself, religious secrets and promises to change the way we view the world. Once you get inside the covers, you find what is actually a very well written historical mystery with intriguing political and philosophical asides.
As Da Vinci prepares to paint his interpretation of The Last Supper, the Pope hears word that the painting may contains bizarre and blasphemous messages hidden within its images. An inquisitor, Agostino Leyre, is sent to investigate and soon finds himself wrapped up in a conspiracy of ideologies that leads to murder and revelations he could never have believed.
It is perhaps unfortunate that this book has been published in the wake of the Da Vinci Code. At any other time, this well written, detailed historical mystery would have stood out in the marketplace. Now, it seems at first glance like a Code tie-in. But what separates this book from Brown's mammoth bestseller is not simply its historical context, but also its character work and political intrigue. Sierra's research into history provides us with a rich backdrop and a compelling, authentic narrative.
With its intense conspiracy and Sierra's struggle to include historical accuracry, the book suffers from the lag common to many historical mysteries in that often sections feel like info dump on the reader. We need to understand the political situation of the time and the philosophical implications of certain modes of thinking if we are to comprehend the true meaning of what Sierra believes is to be found in the images of The Last Supper and thus certain sections feel dragged out and heavy. As we approach the climax, characters start to break out the code wheels and show us the logic that led to their conclusions. While it is all convincing, it demands a lot of the reader to keep up with certain trains of complex thought which may draw a few people out of the narrative completely. But at the same time, of course, depending on your mindset, you may be drawn in by the puzzle and following every step with excitement. For this reader, such sections were a little dryly presented, feeling more like info dump than anything else.
What will keep the non-puzzle solving readers moving is the sense of political intrigue and the well defined characters. The dialogue occasionally feels stiff, but perhaps again this is due to the strangeness of historical speech to modern ears. But the plot and character are intriguing enough to keep a reader moving through this book and ultimately there's a lot to enjoy, not least the slow unravelling of the conspiracy and the enigmatic figure of Da Vinci whose characterisation is at once mystical and grounded; an artist, prophet and yet still fundementally human figure.
If this book can escape the shackles of the Da Vinci Code to find its audience, they will find it to be a rewarding and intriguing historical conspiracy tightly translated from the Spanish and sure to intgrigue historians and mystery fans alike.
Russel McLean for crimescenescotland.com, March 11, 2006