The Third Secret

Author: Steve Berry
Published by: Ballantine Books
Date: 2005

This is a really bad book.

However, this book has provided me a rare opportunity of using the word "egregious" in a sentence. As in: The author commits "egregious" grammatical errors, and more egregious still, the editors fail utterly to pick them up. (That's actually two "egregious" uses in a single sentence!)

Moreover, the book is rife (another rarely used word) with factual errors. Granted, it is a work of fiction, but even within that world there are certain things that should be fact-checked. For example, if you were to write a fictional story that included references to the Mississippi River, and you wrote about its east to west flow, unless this was science fiction or there was some other specific purpose for making the Mississippi River flow east to west, this reference would simply confuse (or amuse) your readers. Worse yet would be references to "facts" not commonly known: by inventing them, an inaccurate (not to say, "lying") writer does his readers a great disservice.

The book is in the tradition (how fast our world moves: a book is written and within a year it has become a genre, complete with Mini-Mes and Wannabes) of Dan Brown's THE DAVINCI CODE.

Now, I have to confess here that I was an early reader of THE DAVINCI CODE, and I was enthralled with the back-story on Leonardo Da Vinci. I was less excited by the tired old re-hashing of the Knights Templar/Holy Grail/Rennes Le Chateau conspiracy theory (though in fairness to the many who found this riveting reading, the first time I heard the Sangreal theory, I was fascinated, too). I was also fascinated by the insider detail of Vatican ways and means, the notion of a sanctioned cult (Opus Dei) within the Catholic Church, and other dark and secret possibilities.

I was also horrified when what should have been taken as a poorly-written though readable romp in what I will call "religious conspiracy fantasy" writing became a cause celebre - a book that finally cast a light on secret "truths" the evil monolith of the Catholic Church had been hiding from the world for centuries. The Dan Brown book clubs, the books written to "decipher" the "mysteries" of The Code, the panel discussions, all merit far more fact and scholarly investigation that THE DAVINCI CODE ever delivered.

I can only fear that the same thing will happen with Steve Berry's latest pot-boiler. It falls squarely in my newly-named genre of "religious conspiracy fantasy," and is, if anything, even MORE poorly written than Dan Brown's book (if you can believe it). Berry's characters are as micron-thin and formulaic as Dan Brown's, and while his dialog is slightly less unspeakable than Brown's, there are still some real howlers, my favorite being: "Colin, I don't want to dramatize this any more than necessary. But the fate of the Church could well be in your hands."

The writer relies heavily on the single-sentence paragraph style of writing:
"He followed the trail with his gaze which stopped at the end of a row of shelves (which, the trail or the gaze?). Rain continued to pound on the roof.

He knew the puddles for what they were.


While his editor should have been more scrupulous (should have, perhaps, really READ the book), some of Berry's faux pas can be, in the light most favorable to him, taken as attempts at wit, though on the whole it is much more likely he just used the wrong word.

Take, for example, this sentence:

"Valendrea (the evil cardinal) was noted for a radical adherence to dogma." While Berry may have been referring to "radical" as "arising from the root or source," so that the sentence might have read, "Valendrea was noted for a basic adherence to dogma," the surrounding text makes it clear that Berry meant to say that Valendrea strongly, even blindly, clung to dogma. And of course, "radical," meaning "departing markedly from the usual or customary" is hardly the right modifier for "adherence" in this case.

Or how about: ""In a heartbeat (says Katerina, the dark and passionate lover of our hero, who happens to be a priest). They ruined my homeland. Passion, Tom. That's what moves revolt. Deep, unabiding passion."

Ok, so if "abide" means "to withstand, to remain in place, to continue to be sure or firm," what Katerina has really said here is "Deep, changeable passion." Kind of alters the meaning, don't you think?

Indulge me in a couple more: "Valendrea pushed aside his breakfast. He had no appetite. He'd slept sparingly, the dream so real he still could not rid it from his mind."

The idea here, I think, is that the man had not slept well. Or did the author really mean that Valendrea had really slept only a little due to restraint, self-denial or abstention? And of course, one does not rid something from one's mind, one rids one's mind of something, the meaning being "to free from." Thus the sentence as Berry wrote it would translate to "...the dream so real he still could not free from it from his mind."

Another one that, if meant, would have been witty. "The Pope was perched on a wooden chair engulfed by horticulture." (The pope is sitting in a solarium.) Unless we are to assume there are also books on the subject of plants surrounding the pope, or that he is busy studying the cultivating of fruits, vegetables and flowers, we have to assume that Berry meant the Pope was surrounded by lush vegetation.

Berry is also fond of referring to a "him" that only he can be sure of. For example: "It was strange staring at the naked corpse of a man HE'D (our hero, Michener) known for more than a quarter century. HE remembered back to all of the times they'd shared. Clement (the dead pope) was the one who'd helped HIM come to the realization that HIS natural father simply thought more of HIMSELF than of HIS child, explaining Irish society and the pressure HIS brith mother sure would have faced as an unmarried mother. How can you blame her? Volker (the dead pope) had asked. And HE'D agreed. HE couldn't. Resentment would only cloud the sacrifices HIS adoptive parents had made. So HE'd finally let go of his anger and forgiven the mother and father HE never knew."

Since we have three "hims" in the paragraph: Michener, the Pope, and Michener's father, it's a little difficult to follow which "him" is being referred to at any given time. Yes, you can parse it out. You shouldn't have to.

For much of this, I blame the editors. It's their job to clean up glaring grammatical and stylistic errors, or ask for a rewrite on a paragraph that reads as confusingly as the one above.

For some of the just plain bad writing, I can only blame the author.

For example: "Michener strolled into the midday sun. The morning rain had dissipated, the sky now littered with mottled clouds, the patches of blue striped by the contrail of an airplane on its way east. Before him, the cobbles of St. Peter's Square bore the remnants of the earlier storm, puddles littered about like a multitude of lakes strewn across a vast landscape. The television crews were still there, many now broadcasting reports back home."

Or: "Michener and Katerina stepped off the metro train and made their way out of the subway station into a frosty night. The former Romanian royal palace, its battered stone facade awash in a sodium vapor glow, stood before them. The Piata Revolutiei fanned out in all directions, the damp cobbles dotted with people bundled in heavy wool coats. Traffic crawled by on the streets beyond. The cold air stained his throat with a taste of carbon."

Though it starts with some promise, the story ends up being nothing but a frustrated Vatican II Catholic's dream scenario: the third secret of Fatima (in the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the three children in Fatima, Portugal, Mary supposedly gave the children three secrets which were not to be revealed until the time was right. The third secret, which puported to refer to the assasination attempt on Pope John Paul II, was revealed to the public after this attempt was made) had more to it than what was revealed to the faithful. A plot within the Vatican had suppressed the rest of the secret. The motive for this plot is the usual: hide from the public that the Catholic Church has been wrong all along. Protect the vast power and wealth of the Church. And in this case: Prove to the traditionalists that God wants not only Vatican II, but far more sweeping changes within the Church.

More disturbing than the poor writing, transparent plot devices, and laughable conclusion, however, is the possiblity that people who read this book will, as they did with THE DAVINCI CODE, believe that what is meanr to be fiction is true, and worse, what is meant to be fact is also true.

While Berry calls himself a Catholic, he displays some grave misunderstandings of Church teaching and tradition.

For example, Berry writes about a character obtaining "three hundred indulgences granted for kissing the papal ring." He then goes on to equate each indulgence to one sin being forgiven.

In fact, an indulgence in the Catholic Church is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven through the sacrament of Penance. Indulgences are given in terms of TIME, not number. Since Catholics believe that while a sin may be forgiven, the punishment for that sin may still remain, and the sinner will, after death, spend a period of TIME in Purgatory atoning for that sin. An indulgence will shorten that time spent in Purgatory. In fact, devoutly kissing the papal ring carries an indulgence of 300 DAYS (the time being an admittedly relative term as we have no idea how time is measured beyond this world).

Small point, you say. Not really.

I am no Catholic scholar, but I was able to identify this and several other factual or conceptual errors about the Church in this book. How many more did I miss? How many people will read books like this, or books dealing with the CIA, public schools, Broadway theatre, or any other institution whose inner workings most of us do not know, and feel they have learned more about what that institution is all about? We read such books expecting that while our main characters and specific plotline are fictitious (there is no Jason Bourne, for example, but is what Robert Ludlum tells us about the inside workings of the CIA also completely made up?) what we are told about the institution, discipline, history, or philosophy that serves as the backdrop will be reasonably close to the truth.

A friend of mine was incensed when he saw the movie THE PERFECT STORM. He lives in Gloucester. He knew the characters in question. He agreed that there had been a fishing boat lost at sea during a terrible storm, and that was about all he agreed with. He felt that there was not a single other point in the movie that accurately portrayed the people, their lifestyle, their situations, or even their behavior both on and off ship. I now can appreciate how offensive he found this portrayal of his home and the people he knew (interestingly, he felt the people were nowhere near as nice and glamorous as the movie would have had you believe).

Again, I take you back to that example of the direction of flow of the Mississippi River: if a major plot element in my story is about how my hero travels along the Mississippi River, and instead of visiting St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, he travels from Atlanta to Gatlinberg to West Texas, we would have to assume a) the book is a work of fantasy or b) the deliberate factual error was a part of the writer's device, or c) the writer needed some serious help with his facts. But if, for some reason, we did not know, and could not know, that the Mississippi River flowed north-south, we, as readers, would simply assume there was a river where the writer said there was. And we would be wrong.

Having said all of the above, I still have to report, in all honesty, that I read THE THIRD SECRED with the same guilty gluttony with which I eat junk food. It goes down easy (no work involved), it's interesting enough (the writer sets you up with an unknown practically on page 1, and doesn't reveal the truth until just about the end), and while you know it's bad for you, heck, you bought it, you might as well, read it. And then promise to go on a SERIOUS diet afterwards!


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