When Dan Brown published his fourth novel, "The Da Vinci Code," in 2003, it was an instant bestseller. It boasted a fascinating protagonist, a Harvard professor of religious iconography named Robert Langdon, and compelling conspiracy theories. Brown, it seemed, had come out of nowhere.
But the bestseller actually had precursors, including "Angels and Demons," the first book in the Robert Langdon series. Published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster, the 713-page turner takes place chronologically before "The Da Vinci Code," although it doesn't really matter which you read first.
Both books revolve around conspiracies within the Catholic church, but most of the action in "Angels and Demons" takes place in Rome and the Vatican. As of 2018, Brown has written three more books in the Robert Langdon saga, "The Lost Symbol" (2009), "Inferno" (2013), and "Origin" (2017). All but "The Lost Symbol" and "Origin" have been made into films starring Tom Hanks.
The book opens with the murder of a physicist working for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. An ambigram representing the word "Illuminati," referring to a centuries-old secret society, has been branded onto the victim's chest. In addition, the director of CERN soon learns that a canister filled with a type of matter that has the destructive power equal to a nuclear bomb has been stolen from CERN and hidden somewhere in Vatican City. The director calls in Robert Langdon, an expert on archaic religious symbolism, to help unravel the various clues and find the canister.
What follows is a fast-paced thriller focused on Langdon's attempts to discover who is pulling the strings within the Illuminati and how far their influence goes. It's major themes are religion versus science, skepticism versus faith, and the hold that powerful people and institutions have over the people they supposedly serve.
"Angels and Demons" is an intriguing thriller for the way in which it mixes religious and historical elements with a sense of foreboding. It introduced the general public to an ages-old secret society, and was a unique entry into the world of conspiracy theory mysteries. While the book may not be great literature per se, it is great entertainment.
Publisher's Weekly had this to say:
"Well plotted and explosively paced. Crammed with Vatican intrigue and hi-tech drama, Brown's tale is laced with twists and shocks that keep the reader wired right up until the final revelation. Packing the novel with sinister figures worthy of a Medici, Brown sets an explosive pace through a Michelin-perfect Rome."
The book received its share of criticism, mainly for its historical inaccuracies presented as fact, a criticism that would carry over into "The Da Vinci Code," which played even more fast and loose with history and religion. Some Catholics took offense at "Angels and Demons," and with its subsequent sequels, stating that the book is nothing but a smear campaign of their beliefs.
Conversely, the book's emphasis on secret societies, alternative interpretations of history, and conspiracy theories might strike pragmatic readers as more of a fantasy than a fact-based thriller.
Finally, Dan Brown doesn't hold back as far as violence is concerned. Some readers might object to or find disturbing the graphic nature of Brown's writing.
Still, "Angels and Demons" has sold millions of copies worldwide, and remains a popular read with lovers of conspiracy-laced thrillers.