Secret codes, mysterious sects, brutal murders, and enigmas hidden in ancient monuments and works of art. Ring a bell? Published in 2003, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code quickly became not only a bestseller but a worldwide phenomenon. Brown didn’t invent historical thrillers that mix reality and fiction. But the author certainly perfected the formula so well that it set people to repeat the book’s treasure hunt in real life (you can ask the administrators of the Louvre Museum or the Church of Rennes-le-Chateau in France, who deal with “Indiana Jones aspirers” looking for clues to this day). If you are one of them, here are 10 adventures full of historical mysteries, codes to be unraveled, and clues hidden in real relics.
1. Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco
This is the possible father of all The Da Vinci Code-style adventures. Prolific Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco wrote Foucault’s Pendulum as a satire on conspiracy theorists. Full of historical, cultural, and religious references, the book uses a fictional plot to stitch together real elements and events as Dan Brown would later do. Its complex story follows the adventures of three researchers who work at a small Italian publishing house specializing in dubious quality books about conspiracy theories. Just for fun, they decide to create their own conspiracy theory: a complex plan involving all existing secret societies (Illuminati, Cabalists, Freemasons, Knights Templar, Opus Dei, the Rosicrucians, etc.) and others invented by them. The problem is that something in that absurd story turns out to be true, and the three friends begin to suspect that they are being stalked by one of these conspirators–or all of them!
2. The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
If you’re a fan of chess (and loved The Queen’s Gambit), be sure to read The Flanders Panel. Spanish novelist Pérez-Reverte created a mystery that spans the centuries and involves a chess game depicted in a (fictional) painting by the 15th-century Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. The protagonist is Julia, a young art restorer who works on the painting and discovers a curious Latin inscription hidden in a corner: “Quis Necavit Equitem” (“Who killed the knight?”). The heroine decides to unravel a murder that happened 500 years ago; to do it, she will need to recreate and win the chess game immortalized in Van Huys’ painting. The enigma involves murder, art, music, history, and, of course, chess (knowing the rudiments of the game rules is essential to better understand the investigation).
3. The Raphael Affair, by Iain Pears
Although the title sounds like a ripoff from The Da Vinci Code, this is another pre-Dan Brown thriller. It all starts with the discovery of a long-lost painting signed by Raphael, one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. The painting is purchased by Rome’s Museo Nazionale, but an English art scholar named Jonathan Argyll suspects it’s a forgery. Things get complicated when the painting is destroyed in a fire and museum employees are murdered. Italian investigators join forces with Argyll to decipher the mystery in a plot full of details about Italian art and architecture. The Raphael Affair was a best seller and spawned six more books written by Pears, all about mysteries hidden in works of art and starring the same Jonathan Argyll.
4. The List of Seven, by Mark Frost
In case you haven’t related the name to the person, Mark Frost is the co-creator of Twin Peaks, one of the most iconic TV series ever made. This is his literary debut, published in 1993. The plot mixes fiction and fantasy with real characters and facts. It takes place in Victorian England, and the protagonist is none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–the creator of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle and a fictional special agent team up to investigate a murder and they discover a coven of Satanists operating in London. In addition to fictional characters, The List of Seven has a parade of real-life celebrities like Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula) and even Jack the Ripper.
5. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
American author Elizabeth Kostova’s first book hit shelves in 2005 and became, that year, the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in U.S. history. It’s a historical thriller written especially for fans of Bram Stoker’s most famous book, Dracula. The Historian’s mystery involves a young woman who delves into her own family’s past and discovers her ancestors have connections with Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth-century evil dictator whose atrocities inspired the legend of Dracula. The search for the truth will take the narrator to monasteries and old libraries spread across Europe, in an adventure that goes back and forth in time using letters written by the main characters.
6. The Alexandria Link, by Steve Berry
American bestselling author Steve Berry has a vast bibliography full of historical thrillers starring Cotton Malone, a retired spy who works as a rare bookseller and occasional adventurer. The Alexandria Link is an authentic page-turner that puts the hero on the run from the beginning, on the trail of a mystery that involves the legendary Library of Alexandria–supposedly destroyed by a fire 1,500 years ago. Obviously, it won’t be easy, as a cold killer is also following in the hero’s footsteps. If you like this one, Cotton Malone also appears in 15 other thrillers with the same “treasure hunt” elements.
7. Spartan Gold, by Clive Cussler
Known long before Dan Brown, Clive Cussler was a tireless American explorer and author who published dozens of bestsellers involving the search for legendary relics–from a treasure hidden in the Titanic’s vault to the lost city of Atlantis. His most famous adventures have as protagonist a spy named Dirk Pitt. But since the 2000s, Cussler had written a dozen thrillers starring Sam and Remi Fargo, a couple of professional treasure hunters. The first of them is Spartan Gold, about the Fargos looking for the treasure of Persian King Xerxes. The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte found the gold in 1800, then hid the fortune and placed the pieces of the map inside twelve bottles of wine. Now everybody is looking for the bottles, including a ruthless Russian villain. As in Brown’s work, the clues to the treasure involve knowledge of real historical events.
8. The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell
If what you liked most about The Da Vinci Code was the religious intrigue, be sure to read Ian Caldwell’s The Fifth Gospel. Written over 10 years and published in 2015, it’s a thriller that revolves around the legendary Diatessaron–the supposed “fifth” gospel. It all starts with the murder of a priest who was working on an exhibition of the Shroud of Turin for the Vatican Museum. The victim’s friend, Father Alex, investigates the crime and becomes involved in a complex enigma that could shake the structures of Christianity. In addition to the murder mystery, The Fifth Gospel is filled with very interesting details about the history of the Catholic Church and the routine of the Vatican. The challenge, as always, is to separate the real from the fiction.
9. The Ghost Manuscript, by Kris Frieswick
Published in 2019, this is the debut novel by journalist and humorist Frieswick. Her heroine is Carys Jones, a researcher who works authenticating rare books. Hired by a millionaire to investigate the origins of a journal from the year 550 AD, she uncovers a complex plot involving King Arthur’s tomb–something that could change everything we know about Western civilization. The investigation will take Carys on a journey around the world, always chased by villains who are looking for the same answers. One thing is certain: after reading The Ghost Manuscript, you will never again sniff books the same way…
10. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Last but not least, an amazing variation on the theme. If you find the references from Dan Brown and other authors too erudite, Ready Player One is The Da Vinci Code for geeks and pop culture addicts! In the year 2045, people spend most of their time in a Second Life virtual reality environment. The digital universe was created by a late eccentric millionaire, who hid a series of clues to his fortune. But treasure hunting requires an absurd knowledge of 1980s pop culture, something protagonist Wade Watts knows like the back of his hand. While Brown uses paintings, books, and old manuscripts in his stories, Cline’s clues involve knowledge of nerd culture: pop music, movies, comic books, and even old Atari games! There are so many easter eggs per paragraph that the reader will need a second read to identify all the references.