Da Vinci Code: 'THIS is without doubt, the silliest, most inaccurate, ill-informed, stereotype-driven, cloth-eared, cardboard-cutout-populated piece of pulp fiction that I have read. And that's saying something.

"It would be bad enough that Brown has gone into New Age overdrive by trying to draw together the Grail, Mary Magdalene, the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, Rosicrucianism, Fibonacci numbers, the Isis cult and the Age of Aquarius. But he's done it so sloppily.'

WHETHER you like the book or not, you have to admit that the zillion-selling The Da Vinci Code is a ripping page-turner of a thriller.

The same could not be said of the opening day yesterday of a hearing to determine whether, and how much, its author had lifted his plot from another book. Instead of getting on with the story, lawyers spent much of the morning bickering over legal technicalities.

But at least, in the small and crowded courtroom at the High Court in London, the principal cast was present.

For an author who has sold 40 million copies of the blockbuster and earned £45 million in a single year, Dan Brown looks like an unexceptional, mild-mannered, middle-aged American. Sitting motionless and largely expressionless, he did not look like a man who would postulate the theory, even as fiction, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, that the descendants of their progeny are still alive, and that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to hush it up.

At the other end of the court sat two men who claim that Brown did not postulate the theory; he stole it from them, thus infringing their copyright.

Richard Leigh, a hirsute fellow with a bit of the look of a heavy-metal biker about him, sat with his co-author Michael Baigent, more conventional in a suit. In 1982, along with a third author who is not involved in the hearing, they published The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, a non-fiction work that examined the Jesus theory and which was itself a bestseller. Now the pair are suing their own publishers, Random House, which also published The Da Vinci Code, for infringement of copyright. If they succeed they could delay the film version of The Da Vinci Code, starring Tom Hanks and Sir Ian McKellen, which is due to be released in May.

Brown acknowledges the existence of HBHG, as the work was referred to in court yesterday for the sake of badly needed brevity. One of the main characters in his own DVC is Sir Leigh Teabing, which, it is suggested, is wordplay on the names of the authors bringing the action.

Every lawyer in court yesterday was equipped with copies of both books. Mr Justice Peter Smith, who exhibits both a refreshing northern accent and a magnificent moustache, disclosed that he had read both - but not, he said, in an analytical way. Jonathan Rayner-James, QC, for the claimants, told the judge that Dan Brown had "appropriated" the central theme of HBHG. "The claimants are not alone in this. Many people all over the world have commented to the same effect since The Da Vinci Code was first published." One who noticed was a letter-writer to The Times.

Brown, however, claims that HBHG was "incidental" to the creation of his book and was consulted only at the very end of its making.

"This is an extraordinary claim that would surprise anyone who has read The Da Vinci Code after reading HBHG," Mr Rayner-James said. "HBHG is a book of historical conjecture setting out the authors' hypothesis. The authors' historical conjecture has spawned many other books that developed aspects of this conjecture in a variety of directions. But none has lifted the central theme of the book."

At one point the judge, who appeared intent on keeping a tight grip on the case and on counsel, interrupted Mr Rayner-James to say: "You couldn't blame Mr Brown for reading HBHG and thinking, 'That's a cracking good story'."

Mr Rayner-James said his clients had invested a great deal of time, effort and skill in their book, while Dan Brown had "appropriated its architecture", and had even copied some of the language. The author's copy of HBHG was heavily annotated, it was alleged.

"It is not as though Brown has simply lifted a discrete series of raw facts from HBHG. He has lifted the connections that join the points up."

Mr Rayer-James went on about "levels of abstraction" as though he were talking about drawing water from an aquifer. The implication, however, was that Brown had abstracted so much from HBHG that he should have gone back to original sources, which were largely the Dossiers Secrets in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, containing narratives on, among other topics, the Merovingians, the Knights Templars and the Tribe of Banjamin.

But by this time it had all become too slow for Brown; he left the court at lunchtime as did his heavy-metal opponent.

The hearing continues today, and is expected to last for up to two weeks.