Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, a Review (Part Two)

(This post contains spoilers for Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets an for Holy Blood, Holy Grail. You have been warned!)

I just finished Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, which I enjoyed a good amount. I highly recommend the book to any printing / bookmaking geeks, it features an interesting (though mostly fictional) account of Gutenberg’s life and cross-cuts it with a modern-day mystery adventure through Europe. In this post, however, I’d like to talk about two aspects of the book that irked me, and that strike me as part of a larger pattern of contemporary historical mysteries. These are, the gender roles in the book and the persistence of a Da-Vinci-Code-esque imagery of Dark Secrets Held By The Church. I talked about gender roles in my last post, so this one is going to be about the Da Vinci Code imagery.

To put it simply – Book of Secrets is an interesting historical fiction about Gutenberg, coupled with an exciting journey of historical reconstruction through Western Europe, on top of which is grafted a mostly unnecessary historical mystery plot. By unnecessary here, I mean that the plot has little value or consequence for the book as a whole. In the end, the Devil’s Library has burned to the ground, its secrets gone forever. The budding relationship between Nick and Emily is based on the hardships they endured together, and on a common enjoyment of reconstruction and old things, not on some Secret they share. The secret bestiary is also gone, and ultimately much more important as a symbol of the hurt, complicated relationship between Kaspar, Johann, Aeneas and their world, than as some dark secret the Church wants to keep. No one in the contemporary plotline seems to recognize the true significance of the diary, nor could they – the characters simply don’t have the relevant context. So why is it in there?

In the years since the publication of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and (more recently) Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, there has been a plethora of historical mystery novels with this same general theme. The Church has Some Terrible Secret they wish to keep so. Plucky young heroes are, through happenstance, thrust into the middle of a plot to uncover this secret. In the climactic resolution of said novels, however, we often find the secret is either inconsequential or not a secret at all. This let-down is rooted, in my opinion, in the simplicity of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s original mystery… (SPOILERS) Christ was human, possibly married and had kids, and descendants of those kids survive to this day. This may be a very controversial statement to some Christians, but there’s nothing more there. All subsequent attempts to harp on the same theme either end up repeating it, coming up with some secret that has nothing to do with Christianity, or (as is the case with Book of Secrets) never revealing the secret in the end.

The Ultimate Answer that all these books try to circle around was penned by Umberto Eco, in Foucault’s Pendulum. Towards the end of the book, as the main character gets more and more bogged down in the world of mysteries, his wife tells him, his secrets lie in the human body and in the world around us. Our bodies have two legs and two arms, so we assign significance to the number two; we love and hate and hurt and rejoice and so we wrap those feelings up in fancy packaging and spend years looking for the answers that are right in front of our noses. Our body, our human experience, is the true book of secrets. We may enjoy trying on all the fancy symbolic wrappers, but in the end, I would guess, we’ll come back to the naked form and enjoy it all the more.

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