LONDON — "Just a publicity stunt," scoffed a gent in the lobby outside Courtroom 61, tucked at the end of a labyrinth in the Royal Court of Justice — now home of the plagiarism trial of "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown. Two of the three authors of the 1982 (sort of) nonfiction book "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" are suing Brown for copyright infringement on the dubious grounds that Brown nicked 15 central points from their book.
The two plaintiffs, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, now refer to "HBHG" — as the wigs in the courthouse call it — as "historical conjecture," a term that paves their twisted claim of ownership not of prose, but of rumor and innuendo. Woe betide any other scribe who repeats it.
"HBHG" claims that Jesus survived crucifixion and sired children with Mary Magdalene, and that their progeny are the true Holy Grail. Brown readily acknowledges that he read "HBHG." Robert Langdon, the Brown-esque hero of the "Da Vinci Code," even makes reference to the book in the hit thriller. "So what?" argues Brown's legal team. Brown can cite five other books that run along the same line, so where do these two wannabes get off accusing Brown of stealing ideas?
The general reaction of Londoners outside the Royal Court has been to dismiss the suit as nonsense — a ruse to sell books. In a city of readers, locals know, as the London Independent reported, the "Da Vinci Code" is "flying off the shelves." "HBHG" saw a tenfold rise in sales in a week. Random House is the publisher for both books. You don't have to be a French cryptologist — similar to Langdon's love interest in the book — to see a link.
Yet inside these halls of justice grinds the ancient machinery that all societies erect to bring down the self-made man. There are writers who see a cheeky American talking about books as if they were a business enterprise, with his wife, Blythe, acting as chief financial officer, organizer and researcher. Court hangers-on like Don Stewart, who hands me a slip of paper that boasts his specialty in "economics, history, archaeology, Middle Eastern affairs and Egyptology," struggle in anonymity.
During lunch break, Stewart assured me that he can prove that Mary was a Phoenician. How it must grate on Baigent and Leigh to watch Brown testify that his wife took too many notes, which he often skimmed or ignored, because he was focusing on working with the least information possible needed "to create a thriller."
The stylized-court traditions accentuate the gulf between American bestseller and British sensibilities. The judge (a.k.a. "your lordship") and the barristers wear white wigs, capes and neckwear so dated that I had to ask four barristers before one could tell me what they're called ("bands"). Tuesday, the claimants' barrister (a.k.a. the "queen's counsel" or the lawyer for the plaintiffs), Jonathan Rayner James, had to back off from a line of questioning because, as his lordship pointed out, the barrister didn't understand what the word-processing software WordPerfect was. In Rayner James' most heated moment, he confronted the bestselling author without reserve, saying, "Oh, come, Mr. Brown."
Clad in a navy jacket, red tie and chinos on Tuesday, Brown told Rayner James that his wife could not have written a set of research notes because she would never spell behavior with a "u." Besides, she was always gathering material and pushing it at him at the breakfast table. A big-picture guy, Brown felt no need to read all that "incredibly dense" material compiled by his wife. His goal is not to enlighten, but to entertain.
Not that any of the above should matter. If the Royal Court finds against Brown, the publishing biz is in for a rough ride. Everyone will lose — except for the lawyers.
Already, Brown's image has suffered. His "Da Vinci Code" alter-ego, Langdon, was single — a set-up for romance, and that's good for book sales. Brown comes across as very married. Langdon is an academic with encyclopedic knowledge and a love for detail. Brown skims over his wife's research during coffee.
Wags keep whispering: Where's Blythe? If French cryptologist Sophie Neveu is the Holy Grail, is Blythe the real author of the "Da Vinci Code"?