In Angels and Demons (2000), Dan Brown introduces Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist who would later star in Brown’s worldwide best seller The Da Vinci Code (2003). The two books share numerous characteristics. Though fictional, both novels claim to be built upon a base of researched facts. Both seek to revise aspects of generally accepted histories, especially those related to the Catholic Church and its relationship to free thought. And both books put Langdon in the middle of violent interactions among shadowy factions, clashes whose outcomes may well determine the future course of Western civilization.
The two books differ in setting, threat, and focus. While The Da Vinci Code tackles ancient speculations about the Holy Grail, Angels and Demons involves more standard thriller fare. It puts science and religion into conflict by reviving the Illuminati, a secret society of scientists and freethinkers whose relationship with the Catholic Church has long been, Brown indicates, intimate, tangled, and not fully known. This secret society returns as a threat when the major church leaders are gathered at the Vatican to elect a new pontiff. Increasing this centuries-old tension is a more specific threat: the Illuminati claim to have stolen a rare sample of antimatter and hidden it somewhere in the Vatican. It is highly explosive if it comes in contact with normal matter, and it will do so when a protective magnetic field runs out in twenty-four hours. Add to this the fact that the four preferred candidates for the papacy have been kidnapped, and the result is that Robert Langdon must decipher a grand puzzle and save the day while half a dozen clocks are ticking. Although the novel’s style is melodramatic, and its exposition and moral judgments are heavy-handed, Angels and Demons remains a first-rate thriller.
When physicist Leonardo Vetra is found murdered with the word “Illuminati” branded onto his chest, Maximilian Kohler, the director of CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research), contacts Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon for help. Kohler has Langdon flown to CERN. Langdon explains the role of the Illuminati—a secret society of artists, scientists, and freethinkers—as a long-standing enemy of the Catholic Church. While Langdon is explaining this, and learning more about Vetra’s research, Vetra’s adopted daughter, Vittoria, who is also a physicist, joins them.
Vittoria and her father had created antimatter in a CERN lab. This was doubly important to her father because he was a priest, and the discovery promised to give humanity access to the secrets of creation. However, it is also a great threat because antimatter explodes when it comes into contact with normal matter. This becomes a pressing issue when they learn that their biggest sample has been stolen, and the battery that generates the magnetic field (and keeps the antimatter stable) has only a twenty-four-hour life span.
CERN is then contacted by the Vatican: a threat has been issued indicating that the antimatter is hidden at the Vatican. This is especially dangerous since a Conclave is being held to elect a new pope to replace the one who recently died. Kohler cannot go immediately because of his poor health, but Langdon and Vittoria make the journey. However, the pair find it impossible to convince Olivetti, the head of the Swiss Guard, that the threat is real. In fact, the commander locks them away while he investigates. Langdon uses his knowledge of Vatican protocol to get them released, appealing to the “camerlengo” (the pope’s chamberlain), who is in charge until the election of the new pope is complete. While they are pleading their case, a representative of the Illuminati calls. He tells them that not only is the antimatter hidden in the Vatican, but the Illuminati have kidnapped the four cardinals who are the favorites to be elected as the new pope. They will kill them, one per hour, at 8, 9, 10, and 11 p.m., at churches around Rome, building the threat before the bomb goes off at midnight, destroying the Vatican, killing many of its leaders, and incinerating much of its wealth.
The camerlengo and the commander of the Swiss Guard decide to let the Conclave continue while they search for the bomb and the missing cardinals. In...
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