Jacques Saunière is in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. He pulls a Caravaggio painting off the wall in order to trigger the gallery’s alarm and seal himself inside, away from an albino attacker who is pursuing him. But the protective metal cage does little to stop the man, who pulls a pistol on Saunière and asks him to reveal where “it” is. Saunière at first pretends that he does not know and then gives the albino a false location. The false location is a lie that Saunière has carefully rehearsed. The albino responds that the “others”—three of Saunière’s partners—had said the same thing. Then he shoots Saunière in the stomach, says, “Pain is good,” and leaves him to die. Saunière realizes that his three partners are dead, and that if he dies, the secret they all shared will die with him. He is desperate to prevent that from happening but realizes he has little time left.
Robert Langdon is asleep in his room at the Ritz in Paris when the concierge calls to say he has an important visitor. Langdon, remembering his lecture on religious symbology earlier that night, figures the visitor is some conservative he offended and tells the concierge to send the guest away. Langdon has a history of being controversial—the previous year, he got into an altercation at the Vatican.
After a while, the concierge rings again to let Langdon know the guest is on his way to his room. The visitor, an agent with the French Judicial Police, questions Langdon about his earlier plans to meet with his acquaintance Jacques Saunière for drinks after the lecture. Langdon says that Saunière stood him up. The agent tells Langdon that Saunière is dead and shows him a picture of Saunière’s body, which is arranged in a specific way. Langdon is horrified and also afraid—he saw a corpse arranged in a similar way before, and it led to the incident at the Vatican.
The albino attacker, Silas, goes to a house that seems to belong to his religious organization, where he has a bedroom. He finds a cell phone in the bottom drawer of the nightstand and calls the Teacher. He tells the Teacher that he has killed Saunière and Saunière’s three collaborators, and that each of them named the Church of Saint- as the secret resting place for the keystone that he and the Teacher and their comrades seek. The Teacher tells Silas to go to Saint-Sulpice immediately and retrieve the keystone. Before obeying, Silas engages in some “corporal mortification,” a masochistic practice of physical self-punishment, as a way of doing penance for sins. Silas tightens the barbed cilice, a punishment belt, around his thigh, and flagellates himself, all the while repeating his mantra: “Pain is good.”
Langdon leaves the hotel, and Jerome Collet, an agent of the French Judicial Police, drives him across Paris to the Louvre. In the car Langdon muses about the history of some of Paris’s famous architecture. He wishes he could be with his former flame, Vittoria, on the Eiffel Tower, a structure he mocks as a reflection of the culture’s machismo. Collet drops him off by the glass pyramid, the entrance to the museum designed by I.M. Pei. Inside, Langdon meets Bezu Fache, the police captain nicknamed “the Bull.”
Saunière’s murder is an instigating moment in the story. By setting it in an art gallery, a place not normally associated with drama or intrigue, Brown indicates to the reader that his novel will take an unusual approach toward art. As a museum curator, Saunière is respectful of art. When he commits vandalism by ripping the Caravaggio off the wall, it symbolizes that the story will undo many of our assumptions about the sacred nature of high art. This act of vandalism also shows the lengths to which Saunière will to go to survive. Saunière is not, however, willing to give up his secret, even if his reticence means death. The reader may suspect that this secret has some connection to artwork, since the opening scene is set in a museum, but aside from that clue the nature of the secret is unknown. Its discovery will occupy much of the novel.
Langdon is the perfect man to uncover Saunière’s secret. On one hand, he is like the reader—clueless about what is going on and why. On the other hand, as a professor of symbology, he is very knowledgeable and well equipped to solve the mystery. It seems that most of Langdon’s knowledge has been academic, with no real-life application. Here, he is given a chance to apply his puzzle-solving skills to an actual murder.
Silas is a masochist who lives by the motto “pain is good.” Pain is also at the foundation of his religious beliefs. Silas is a sinister representative of his religious group. His violent behavior, whether directed toward himself—the cilice belt, the self-flagellation—or toward others, as exemplified by his willingness to murder, makes his organization seem evil. Although what the philosophy “pain is good” has to do with the goals of the Teacher, and why Saunière was working against this group, is not yet known, the reader does know that Silas and his organization are threatening.
Langdon displays a wry sense of humor, especially in his musings on French culture. His academic specialty affects his outlook: he seems to see the world around him in terms of symbols. For example, his discussion of French culture arises from an analysis of its architecture and the Freudian symbols he perceives in its architecture. This way of perceiving the world may be helpful for solving Saunière’s murder, but it is also a limited method of perception.