The Lucifer Code is a Dan Brown-esque treasure hunt meets religious thriller meets political novel. Thomas Lourds is a Harvard professor called to Istanbul to give a series of lectures on linguistics and archaeology, but as soon as he touches down at the airport, he's abducted by a beautiful woman. Lourds is suspected of being the only man in the world capable of translating an ancient book said to lead to a mystical scroll, the Scroll of Joy. More kidnappings, explosions, and bedhopping ensue. Suffice to say, Lourds will find the scroll, as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
If that synopsis seemed a little choppy, that's because the book itself suffers from schizophrenia. The author can't seem to decide if he's writing a religious thriller, an academic mystery, or a political novel about the Middle East. It is nearly 200 pages in (and the book is only about 370 pages long) that we really get any information about the scroll. The preceding 200 pages revolve around the many abductions of Thomas Lourds, the Vice-President of the United States' various maneuvers in the Middle East, and a lot of cringe-worthy sex. Thomas Lourds is never a fully-developed character, the women who fall into his bed are one-dimensional, and the rest of the shoddy cast is absurdly single-minded: we never really find out why individuals do what they do, other than that the novel needs them to behave in a particular way.
I was irritated by this book within the first 10 pages. Thomas Lourds is a self-satisfied, sleazy academic - fully convinced of his own brilliance and his sex appeal. When a young co-ed type approaches him, he lingers over her feminine charms (described from a blatantly male perspective) and imagines getting her into bed ASAP. Even when this woman, Cleena, turns out to be a gun-running terrorist (and his first abductor), Lourds is still focused mainly on bedding her. Beaten, broken, and bombed, Lourds still thinks with his penis. One wonders how he ever managed to learn English, let alone every language ever conceived of, he is so singularly focused on his own 'scroll of joy'.
The narrative shifts between Lourds and Cleena, interspersed with two further narratives, those of the Vice-President, and his CIA contact. The Vice-President is starting WWIII in the Middle East, and the CIA operative is tasked with finding Lourds and the scroll. A fifth narrative is created when the VP hires another team to abduct Lourds and find the scroll (which is really superfluous, and serves only to motivate more explosions and shootings). A lot of things are blown up, a lot of unimportant extras are killed, a secret brotherhood of monks saves Lourds from more kidnappers, Lourds meets up with his scholar/lover/friend, a hacker is introduced, and somewhere in there is some pseudo-religious rhetoric. The scroll, the hunt for it, the linguistics involved in translating it, and the puzzles that lead to it are unimportant, at least as far as the author is concerned. These things are not described. Artifacts are effortlessly located, translations are made on the fly, and a globe-hopping search for decoder rings is reduced to a paragraph of exposition. It is clearly more important to describe the VP's sexcapades with a journalist and Lourds' developing Three's Company situation with his scholar-lover and Cleena. The women fight over Lourds like dogs over a bone, but with little inconvenience to Lourds himself, because his brilliance must be spared any wounded female feelings - he must be allowed to focus on his work (but don't worry, the author will spare you, dear reader, the trouble of focusing on Lourds' work - you'll get a little post factum exposition).
(Look out, some blatantly obvious SPOILERS are coming!!)
Then the last 30 pages turn into the most anti-climactic eschaton in the history of supernatural thrillers. The devil shows up! Our heroes defeat him! Hey, they translated the scroll! Why did the devil want it? Who cares! Wait, what happened to Qayin? Cleena's sister? The whole burgeoning war? Unimportant! Thomas has another adventure to go on! Join us next time as Lourds avoids romantic entanglements while getting laid in the search for the Library of Alexandria!
The misogyny aside, my biggest issue with this book is the lack of focus on the academic journey. Maps of Istanbul are provided, but the reader never needs them. The whole exercise feels unfinished, like an early draft rather than a completed novel. At least with a Dan Brown romp the historical detail is well-researched and somewhat plausible. The puzzles are appropriately engaging (ooh, anagrams!), and the twists are labyrinthine and fun, if a bit ludicrous. Brokaw eliminates all of the remotely cerebral entertainment. We all know Dan Brown's work is mass market pandering, but at least it has some academic pretension. Brokaw seems not to want to burden his readers with the dubiously onerous task of trying to work out a puzzle. In the end, I feel like I was treated to a TNT Original Movie, edited to fit the time slot, rather than a feature film in theatrical release. I wanted to give up after 50 pages, but forced myself to power through to the end. I rather wish I hadn't bothered.
I received "The Lucifer Code" as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.