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.