With six novels to his name, Canadian author Andrew Pyper may have thought it was time he wrote a mega-best-seller that would establish him as a household name. So for THE DEMONOLOGIST, his latest offering, he borrowed from the Dan Brown Formula for Success to produce a thriller based upon the hidden meanings of a long-revered work of art. Yet, for all its derivativeness, there remains a surprising amount to be gained from Pyper’s latest.
For several years, David Ullman, professor of literature at Columbia University, has specialized in literature of the demonic, particularly John Milton’s PARADISE LOST. His expertise has won him renown in the world of academia, but has done nothing to lift the melancholy that shrouds his every waking moment.
One afternoon, after one of his undergraduate lectures, Ullman is visited by a strange, thin woman who invites him to fly to Venice, where he will witness a “phenomenon,” then offer his opinion and interpretation for a huge sum of money. Ullman declines at first. But with his marriage dissolving and his classes falling into a dull routine, he reconsiders. He and Tess, his beloved 12-year-old daughter, take advantage of the first-class accommodations and leave for Italy.
The so-called phenomenon Ullman witnesses seems more frightening and inexplicable then phenomenal. Still, it challenges the disbelief he has held about the sources of the literature he has studied all his life. Suddenly, Tess is taken from him, prompting Ullman to embark on a cross-country journey to rescue her and reveal the meaning of what he saw in Venice, using Milton’s epic poem, the Bible and a few related books as his guide.
What saves THE DEMONOLOGIST from being yet another Dan Brown wannabe is the pervasiveness of Pyper’s prose. He applies the psychological insight that distinguished his earlier thrillers and effectively portrays the sadness that has become such a familiar characteristic of his protagonist. This also underscores the irony of Ullman being an expert in literature whose basis in religion and faith he never has accepted.
Then there are the many strange episodes that follow the event in Venice. As he follows the clues found in Tess’ journal and other sources, Ullman meets with a series of oddball characters as he drives desperately from one end of the U.S. to the other. Most of these encounters last for only a chapter or less, yet Pyper creates an unsettling sense of creepiness with each of these fleeting characters that lingers long after their presence.
One of the few consistent characters is Elaine O’Brien, a psychologist and one of Ullman’s few close friends. Their platonic relationship at first feels like the only bright spot in his depressing life. Unfortunately, O’Brien quickly becomes a sounding board for Ullman’s new obsession and their conversations turn into veiled passages of exposition about demons, God and the other themes that inhibit the literature our hero uses in his quest.
It remains to be seen if THE DEMONOLOGIST truly becomes Pyper’s breakthrough novel. It has a lot going for it, but these advantages risk becoming ignored amidst the countless attempts to cash in on Brown’s success. —Alan Cranis