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Inaction Hero

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Now that controversies over Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code have died down, it's time to say what's really wrong with the novel and film. Critics seized on trivialities like historical inaccuracies and allegations of plagiarism. That ignores the biggest problem: Its hero, Robert Langdon, is a professor. Worse yet, he's in the humanities, a historian in the fictitious Harvard Department of Symbology. Indiana Jones aside, popular culture usually pairs "professor" with "absent-minded" or "nutty," not "action hero." Of course, Langdon is not a typical academic. He cuts classes, stays in first-class hotels, and doesn't serve on committees. He mostly resembles real professors in talking endlessly on subjects of no interest to anyone else. Because he is a faux academic, however, his character can find significance in anything and solve anagrams — rearranging letters of words into a meaningful message, a skill honed by reading undergraduate essays.

I'm proposing a slightly more realistic, equally lucrative, version of Robert Langdon. What follows are plot lines starring my alternative hero, Robert Plankton, Harvard Professor of Triviology, the study of inconsequential and seldom amusing details. In addition to offering a substantial advance, potential publishers must unscramble the letters to solve an anagram clue to where the check should go: "em."

Raiders of the Lost Footnote: The distinguished literary scholar Sir Edmund Dither dies shortly after publishing his masterpiece establishing that Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is, after all, about the meaning of life. Plankton notes a curious thing about the book that can hardly be accidental. In the final chapter, where Dither develops his concept of "profound absurdity," footnote 16 is missing. In its place is: "re. rats." Critics dismiss this as a typographical error or evidence of an obsession with rodents. Sir Edmund's granddaughter — a gorgeous astrophysicist and yoga instructor — suspects something more significant and engages Plankton to crack the code. His answer takes them to exotic places, mostly in Paris, and reveals the truth about Sir Edmund. [Answer below]

Death by Committee: In the second hour of a pointless committee meeting, a bioethicist dies. At the bottom of a page of doodles is an anagram, her last message as she sensed the end approaching: "racy items." At the request of her daughter — a sexy mathematician and martial arts expert — Plankton travels to European cities for no apparent reason while coming to understand the professor's final thoughts as the meeting droned on. [Answer below]

The Stooge Code: A Harvard symbologist appears before a grand jury investigating the death of a homeless man in a Washington, D.C., subway station. His theory is that the death was part of a vast conspiracy. He points out that it occurred where red, green, and yellow lines converge in a symbolically meaningful fashion, with the red one connecting to "Judiciary Square." These facts, he argues, link the death to a secretive society whose members wear black robes, mumble unintelligibly, and control the lives of millions. After three hours of closed-door testimony, the judge emerges to announce that the witness had been bludgeoned to death in front of the whole court and no one recalls seeing what happened. The only clue is a single word the symbologist wrote in his final moments, using his blood as ink: "MOE." Aided by the victim's sultry niece — a brain surgeon and Formula 1 driver — Plankton ascertains that this is not an anagram, but rather a reference to Moe of the Three Stooges. The niece and Plankton repeatedly watch all Three Stooges movies, seeking meaning in Moe's every word and gesture. In the end, they haven't traveled, can't stand each other, haven't solved the case, and require therapy. [Missed clue below.]


Raiders: The anagram is "Sartre." Sir Edmund became mentally unhinged from reading French intellectuals and inserted "re. rats" as an absurd, meaningless gesture that proved his own existence, which ceased soon afterward.

Death by Committee: The anagram is "It's a mercy."

Stooge Code: "MOE" stands for Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the passengers in a train car commit murder and collude in a cover-up. Langdon annoyed one audience too many.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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