By Jennifer Reese
Updated March 22, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

You can only begin to appreciate the genius of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code when you try to plow through the turgid knockoffs. Critics have rightly assailed Brown’s threadbare prose and love of cliché, his inane characterizations (”Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”?), and a dippy narrative that relies on shameless cliff-hangers every three pages. You can’t blame the halfway decent writer who slams shut the blockbuster and says, ”Damn, I can do that!”

Except no one does. Brown’s imitators invariably overthink, overplot, and overwrite their tortured historico-religious mysteries. We may never know if Spaniard Javier Sierra meant to ape Brown, but his Secret Supper borrows Brown’s potent ingredients: a murderer who goes by a creepy nickname, secret symbols embedded in a Leonardo masterpiece, and a supposedly world-rocking alternative reading of Christianity. Yet Sierra’s novel — published in 2004 in Europe — fails to replicate Brown’s pace and power. (Nor does his labored effort approach the commanding, intricate work of Umberto Eco — the writing, as translated by Alberto Manguel, is far too clunky.)

As The Secret Supper begins, the ponderous, octogenarian narrator, Agostino Leyre, is moldering in an Egyptian cave thinking over the momentous events of 40 years before. (Sierra’s first mistake: a thoughtful and verbose narrator.) In 1497, Agostino was an inquisitor for the Catholic Church in Rome, sniffing out blasphemy and quashing heretics. His organization — imagine a 15th-century KGB — begins receiving chilling letters on ”fine, bone-colored sheets of parchment, written in perfect calligraphy” from a tipster in Milan who signs himself ”The Soothsayer.”

The Soothsayer warns about a covert ”plan to turn Milan into a new Athens” — where art, science, and religious liberty are cherished over Church rules — and posts a missive foretelling the death of a freethinking noblewoman three days before it occurs. Agostino promptly heads north to unmask the evil Soothsayer and get to the root of the alleged anti-Catholic skulduggery.

The trouble seems to center on Leonardo da Vinci’s new fresco-in-progress, The Last Supper, which some believe is crammed with hidden messages. Except no one can read them. Why don’t the figures have halos? What do the precise positions of the apostles mean? Why the knot in the tablecloth? As he tackles these clever, fussy questions, Agostino encounters a few more mundane mysteries, most urgently: Who has been leaving dead bodies around Milan, tarot cards strategically placed beside their corpses? As the befuddled Agostino puts it, ”Oddities piled up on oddities.”

In fact, too many oddities pile up to keep the complicated story galloping forward, and a plot this full of baloney needs to gallop. In The Da Vinci Code, the heroes are too busy fighting off mad albinos and embedding transponders in bars of soap to indulge in reflection. The plot is so breathless that when you finally arrive, gasping and adrenalized, at Brown’s climactic revelation, it appears beautiful and surprising. It may seem sillier the longer you think about it, but that’s the piece of The Da Vinci Code that Brown wannabes have failed to crack: While you’re reading it, you don’t have time to think.

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