The next Da Vinci Code?

Shrouded in secrecy, Dan Brown’s new novel is about to hit the shelves. Will lightning strike twice?

090917_danbrownIt’s still uncertain to what extent the Recluse of Exeter will emerge from the high-tech security of his rural New Hampshire home to help publicize The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown’s long-awaited follow-up to The Da Vinci Code goes on sale Sept. 15; so far, publisher Doubleday has confirmed that Brown will appear on The Today Show, and talk to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. There is, of course, no compelling practical need for Brown, who vies for the title of world’s most famous author with Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, to do anything at all. The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 80 million copies in 50 languages since its 2003 release. Doubleday claims it’s been read by about 10 per cent of all the adult humans who can read. No matter how much effort author and publisher pour in this time, the new novel is hardly likely to equal those once-in-a-lifetime sales figures.

On the other hand, having printed a record first run of five million hardcover copies of The Lost Symbol, Doubleday clearly expects something on the order of the second-highest-selling novel of all time. The publisher and its marketing partners, especially Amazon—which has some 70,000 copies on pre-order—have been ramping the buzz up to fever pitch. No more than 10 key personnel at Doubleday’s various offices have been allowed to read the novel. Plus one outsider: Today Show host Matt Lauer, who signed—possibly with his own blood—a non-disclosure agreement, so that he could sprinkle daily clues during the final pre-release week about sites mentioned in The Lost Symbol. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in an unintentionally hilarious letter posted on its site, declared the online retailer was moving heaven and earth to keep its stash secure, including “24-hour guard in its own chain-link enclosure, with two locks requiring two separate people for entry.” (What, no death rays? No three-headed dog named Fluffy?) Leaving nothing to chance—in marketing as well as security—Doubleday also sent a memo to librarians, warning them they will surely encounter “a few crazies hovering around the desk a couple days early, inquiring about copies, then inquiring again, then trying to peek around the desk, etc. But please, please don’t lend them out early.”

Even Brown’s best post-publication efforts can’t make much of a difference to all that. But there is still an expectation—a demand, actually, in our celebrity-obsessed age—that he respond to widespread curiosity, and talk about himself and his work. That’s probably not a congenial idea for the very private author. He complained, in the early days of the Code’s success, that he could no longer fly on commercial aircraft because of the crowds of autograph-seeking fans, waving everything from well-thumbed copies to air-sickness bags. And Brown can’t have enjoyed the escalating attacks from disgruntled scholars and militant Catholics, both enraged by the novel’s Jesus-marries-Mary-Magdalene-and-founds-the-royal-family-of-France backstory, or by the vicious comments from lovers of good prose.

So, as the Code soared into the pop culture firmament, Brown sank below the radar in the New England woods, emerging rarely—and on his own terms—into the public eye. In October 2005 he agreed to address the New Hampshire Humanities Council only if the media were banned from attending. Although one of the council’s announced goals is “forging long-lasting partnerships with the media,” its star-struck members agreed to the author’s condition. The cult of celebrity has saved the day for him on other occasions, too. Brown once dashed to the airport in Boston, only to realize that he had left his driver’s licence at home. “Fortunately,” he later recalled, “the guy behind me in line had a copy of The Da Vinci Code.  I borrowed it, showed security the author photo and made my flight.’’

Brown’s eventual seclusion left behind an assortment of contradictory impressions. He was a believer in alternative history, the conspiracy-soaked secret-society version of Western civilization, and hence—in an era when large numbers of Americans think their own government brought down the Twin Towers—someone who was simply taking part in the contemporary national conversation. He was a cynic who parlayed the Roman Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal in the U.S. into commercial gold. He was an ingenious if childlike puzzle-maker who had no idea how large a hornets’ nest he was about to kick over. Or just another guy who believes everything he reads on the Web.

Yet even Brown, who has earned $250 million from his books and their film versions, was once a struggling artist, as eager to court the media’s attention then as the media is to return the favour today. Brown used to talk to journalists, including about his childhood. Now 45, he grew up in New Hampshire near his present home, the son of Dick, an award-winning math instructor, and Constance, a music teacher. He attended—for free, since his parents taught there—Phillips Exeter Academy, a U.S. equivalent to Upper Canada College. It was during his education alongside the children of America’s elite, Brown once said, that he learned the true power of secret societies: “I grew up surrounded by the clandestine clubs of Ivy League universities, the Masonic lodges of our founding fathers and the hidden hallways of early government power.”

Inheriting his father’s fascination with numbers and his mother’s talent for music and art—and living in a TV-free house—young Dan became fascinated with magic tricks, puzzles, riddles and codes. On Christmas Day, the family tree offered not presents but cryptic maps and verses leading the three Brown children on a treasure hunt through the house; Dan, the eldest, would always be the first to crack the codes.

After graduating from Amherst College in 1986, the mild-mannered piano player headed to Los Angeles to become a singer-songwriter—music, not writing, was Brown’s first choice of career. He began with a children’s album called SynthAnimals, but what he really wanted to be was an easy-listening pop star. In 1990 Brown put out his first adult album, Perspective, followed by a self-titled CD that featured the faintly sado-masochistic Sweet Pleasure in Pain and 976-LOVE, a bizarre ballad about phone sex: “Now when I’m feeling small / You’re the one that I call / I know you understand / I take you to bed/ I push the phone to my head / And you make me feel like a man.” Hits, for whatever reason, were elusive. “Do I really look like someone cut out for MTV?” Brown later asked wryly. “The world isn’t ready for a pale, balding geek shaking his booty—not a pretty picture.” But if he didn’t find stardom, he did find a wife, who became crucial to his later success.

In 1991 Brown met Blythe Newlon, the director of artistic development at the National Academy for Songwriters. For no apparent reason, other than the fact she is 12 years older than Dan, Blythe has loomed large in Brownian mythology, mostly as a Svengali figure who has driven him to higher achievements than his laid-back nature might have accomplished on its own, although she also figures in a minority feminist reading of the Brown phenomenon, as the unsung brains, rather than the slave-driver, behind the pair. One British columnist compared Blythe to the French novelist Colette, who began her writing life a century ago locked in a room daily by her husband until she had produced a set number of pages for his bestsellers.

Blythe began helping Brown as his manager and publicist, touting his music as a mix of Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Paul Simon. The two became secret lovers, their relationship unknown to most of their friends until 1993, when they moved back to New Hampshire. They married in 1997, and have no children. His music dreams abandoned, Brown taught English and began to write. His first effort was a humour book, 1995’s 187 Men to Avoid: A Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman, published under the pseudonym Danielle Brown. (One of the types were men “who think farting is cute.”) In 1998 Brown wrote, under Blythe’s name, The Bald Book, which laboured to make light of what seems to be a serious issue for the author.

By 1994, though, Brown was concentrating on thrillers, a genre he felt he could master. On holiday in Tahiti that year he read Sidney Sheldon’s The Doomsday Conspiracy and decided he could do better. In fairly short order he wrote Digital Fortress (1998), Angels & Demons (2000), and Deception Point (2001), while Blythe did his promotion: writing press releases, booking Brown on talk shows, and setting up interviews. Angels & Demons was the first of Brown’s books to feature his signature character, Harvard symbology expert Robert Langdon, and the first to bring the writer any level of buzz. Although Brown’s early thrillers have all become retro bestsellers in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, they sold modestly on their first release, and the couple were anxious to identify a mix that would resonate better with readers and media.

Brown knew he had hit on a winning character with Langdon, who—though given to uttering such risible lines as, “I’ve got to get to a library, fast!”—had a Tom Hanks-ish likeability and genuine superpowers (of the intellectual sort) that could plausibly take him to any art-rich locale in the world. As one critic noted, the man could instantly “digest ancient squiggles by the wall-load.” Langdon, in fact, was “the man I wish I were,” Brown admitted. “Langdon is significantly cooler than I am, and he’s interested in what I am: ancient mysteries, art history and codes.” The Angels & Demons lead would return, and not just for one encore—Brown has been reported as saying he has enough Langdon plots for a dozen novels.

The author also remembered generating instant (albeit negative) reader reaction with a passage in that novel, merely by describing the face on Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa as looking like she was in the throes of orgasm. Check: sex and religion, definitely in. Then Brown had what amounts to, in his retelling, his career-defining eureka moment, when he recalled an art history class he had taken at the University of Seville. He described it to Blythe, whom he calls a “da Vinci fanatic”: how the lecturer spoke of all the disguised references in Leonardo’s Last Supper, and his assertion that it was Mary Magdalene, not the Apostle John, seated beside Christ. The talk had enthralled the puzzle-loving author: “That was the first time I saw The Last Supper for what it really was, a fresco full of codes.”

The Da Vinci Code became the book Dan and Blythe worked together most closely on, because of her knowledge of Leonardo. “My wife is an enormous influence,” Brown said. “Her passion for the subject certainly buoys the process when it bogs down.” And while Brown devised the codes, it was Blythe, he said, who “just possibly had something to do with the recurring theme of the goddess and the sacred feminine.” (Other reports ramp up that “just possibly” to claims that Blythe insisted on the theme of the suppression of women by misogynist Church fathers.)

Brown further explained how the Code came into being in his most informative public statement of the last few years, a 69-page deposition he filed with a British court in 2006. Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three co-authors of 1982’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail—essentially a non-fiction account of the alt-history background of The Da Vinci Code—had sued Brown’s publisher for plagiarism. After he and Blythe had made the original plan, Brown told the court, he sketched an outline for his new agent in January 2001, writing it in the laundry room of his parents’ winter home in Florida while seated in a lawn chair with an ironing board for a desk. Brown said he incorporated some of Holy Blood’s ideas, but only because they were floating about in the alt-history world; he had never heard of the book itself until Blythe’s research had already turned up the Code’s main themes.

He went on to say how his books are populated by characters cryptically named for real people: Leigh Teabing in the Code for example, was an anagram of the names of the two men now suing him. (A “playful tribute,” he called it: “I have been shocked at their reaction.”) Blythe, he noted, would read books and scour the Internet to produce documents on everything from the “sacred feminine” to symbolism in Leonardo’s art. “She often playfully chided me about my resolve to keep the novel fast-paced, always at the expense of her research,” Brown wrote. (The Code’s 454 pages are divided into 105 chapters, offering a cliffhanging moment or a puzzle to solve every four or five pages.) “In return, I jokingly reminded her that I was trying to write a thriller, not a history book.”

He also complained of the interruption the case had brought to his creative regimen, during which he writes seven days a week, often while wearing gravity boots: “Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my perspective.” Gravity boots, ankle supports used by fitness buffs since the ’80s, surged in popularity in 2006 after Brown’s endorsement became widely known.

Doubleday agreed with the Browns that the combination of Langdon and Leonardo, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, sex and religion, albino killer monks and the Holy Grail, was a potential money-spinner. Marketing muscle joined with puzzles and fast-paced alt-history to launch a book tailor-made for a post-9/11 world that suddenly saw conspiracies around every corner and which, in the U.S. in particular, offered a roiling marketplace in religious ideas.

At first Brown defended his work as thinly veiled fact, earnestly telling journalists that, “I began the research for The Da Vinci Code as a skeptic. I entirely expected, as I researched the book, to disprove this theory. After numerous trips to Europe, and about two years of research, I really became a believer.” It was all based on real events, he insisted. But as the controversy grew, and experts mercilessly dissected the novel’s cornucopia of errors—without diminishing sales in the slightest—Brown backtracked to a safer it’s-only-a-story position. In 2006, just before the The Da Vinci Code film arrived in theatres, Brown told an audience of fellow writers in Portsmouth, N.H., that people should “let the Biblical scholars and historians battle it out.” The Code was “a book about big ideas. You can love them or hate them, but we’re all talking about them, and that’s really the point.”

That has essentially become his standard defence over the six long years between novels, a delay primarily rooted in commercial considerations. Publication of The Lost Symbol before this year would have put Brown and Doubleday in competition with themselves while the Code kept selling . . . and selling. As one publishing executive put it, “Just when you think everyone who wants to buy it must have already done so, another 20,000 copies are sold.” But it’s likely that a desire to critic-proof the new book has also played a role.
Little is yet known of The Lost Symbol. The original announcement of its coming release included only the title and that the story unfolds over 12 hours. (A change from the 24-hour time span of Langdon’s previous adventures—by the time the last of his dozen plots rolls around, the symbologist may well be a master of the old-time one-minute mystery.) Brown long ago confirmed that Langdon’s third case would be set in the Washington area, box-office gold by the evidence of Nicolas Cage’s two successful National Treasure films (2004 and 2007), which mined the same territory via the Masonic allegiances of America’s founding fathers (including George Washington), and the all-seeing eyeball and pyramid featured on U.S. currency.

The novel would involve Freemasons, another of the Catholic Church’s ancient foes. Like the Knights Templar and the Illuminati, papal foes in Langdon’s first two adventures, the Masons are a staple of alt-history. Langdon, according to Brown’s website, will “find himself embroiled in a mystery on U.S. soil. This new novel explores the hidden history of our nation’s capital.” And Brown, according to some in a position to know, has been working hard to get this one right. “He has toured a number of Masonic temples to get the historical facts correct,” says Akram Elias, grand master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia.

Sept. 15, 2009, the release day for The Lost Symbol, will be the second Tuesday after Labour Day, a traditional publisher’s favourite for new fall titles. Before that date was made public, however, Doubleday announced that Brown had “a very specific date for the publication of his new book, and when the book is published, his readers will see why.” But no one has yet been able to connect Sept. 15 to a seemingly suitable moment in Masonic history. Then again, perhaps everyone has been looking in the wrong place: The Lost Symbol may not have a purely Masonic backdrop.

The Da Vinci Code’s dust jacket sports, in hard-to-find lettering, the plaintive question, “Is there no help for the widow’s son?” That’s a Masonic plea for aid, all right, an identifying cry meant to bring nearby Masons to the rescue. But those were also the last words spoken by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, before he was murdered by a mob in 1844. The following year, Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as Mormon leader, led his nascent church beyond the boundaries of the U.S. into what were then Mexican lands. There, the Mormons founded a state they called Deseret, and on Sept. 15, 1857, Young effectively declared its independence from the U.S. It is quite possible that Mormonism, the indigenous American religion—a faith heavily influenced by Masonry—will have a starring role in The Lost Symbol.

So perhaps that’s the mix this time around: Langdon and George Washington, Jesus and Brigham Young, sex and religion, all-seeing eyeballs and an American culture that—in the era of birthers, truthers and death-panel denouncers—is wide open to secret-history explanations of a chaotic world. Maybe lightning will strike twice for Dan Brown.

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