Dan Brown’s back, and in a big way. Six years after The Da Vinci Code took over the bestseller lists, and three years after the Hollywood adaptation became the second-highest-grossing movie of 2006, the film version of Brown’s other novel about Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon arrives in theatres on May 15. More exciting for Brown’s fans—not to mention for a publishing sector almost as hard hit economically as automakers—is the news his long-delayed third Langdon thriller is finally set for release. In September, five million hardcover copies of The Lost Symbol will go on sale, bearing a massive weight of expectation not only for Brown, but for an entire industry. No longer just the guy who popularized the notion that Jesus Christ had a family with Mary Magdalene, Brown is now cast as the Man Who Will Save Publishing. Talk about pressure: the mega-selling Code is a tough enough act to follow, but Brown’s chances of rescuing the book trade are no better than his chances of ruining it.
Brown, 44, has been a fairly prolific writer since he switched careers from singer-songwriter in 1994, and The Lost Symbol has probably been ready for years. But neither Brown nor his publisher, Doubleday, had any compelling financial need to jump on their own bandwagon any sooner. Estimates of Brown’s earnings from The Da Vinci Code tend to swirl around the figure of $250 million. The book stayed on bestseller lists for nearly three years, often—in an even more remarkable publishing first—sharing Top-10 listing with its own illustrated version. The total number of copies in print is now a staggering 81 million.
Yet if Brown isn’t hurting for money, the same can’t be said for the book trade. Wracked by layoffs and dwindling sales, and troubled by the arrival of new—and potentially less profitable—content-delivery systems, it’s more dependent than ever on blockbuster titles. Recent British figures show that just 500 authors, out of a total of 120,000 who earned any royalties, accounted for a full third of $3.6 billion in sales last year.
But the Harry Potter-level sales figures did not derive from the Code’s easy-reading mix of ingenious puzzles, frequent cliffhanging moments, a glamorous Parisian setting and a sadistic albino killer monk. The pop culture buzz was generated by the scandalous backstory, presented as fact. The Holy Grail at the heart of the plot was not, as traditional accounts held, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper, but the bones of Mary Magdalene and documents proving her marriage to Jesus. Early Christianity, according to the Code, once embraced the “sacred feminine” before misogynist clerics ripped that element out of the faith and demonized women as sexual temptresses, while suppressing all knowledge of Jesus as husband and father.
The novel arrived at a time when public opinion was deeply alienated by the pedophile scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church. The anger of established authority over this fanciful alt-history of Christianity only reinforced the view of its supporters that the truth had been repressed for centuries. Fans were not content simply to read it, but swarmed European sites associated with the story, to the extent that in September 2004 the French hamlet of Rennes-le-Château exhumed a long-dead priest and reburied him in a tourist-proof concrete grave. It all proved to be literary Brownian motion, a book-form version of Scottish botanist Robert Brown’s theory about the tendency of tiny particles to create random patterns: the Code, in short, aligned with the zeitgeist as few novels ever have.
Does Brown stand a chance of seeing such a pattern re-emerge? Not if the bar is set at the 81-million copy level, but in terms of everyday bestsellerdom, his prospects aren’t bad at all. Little is known of The Lost Symbol. The April 20 announcement of its fall release included only the title and that the story unfolds over 12 hours. But Brown long ago confirmed that Langdon’s third case, under the working title of The Solomon Key, would be set in the Washington area and involve Freemasons, another of the Church’s centuries-old enemies. (Like the Knights Templar and the Illuminati, papal opponents in Langdon’s first two adventures, the Masons are a staple of alternative, secret-society histories of Western civilization.)
Brown and Doubleday are not alone in cheering for The Lost Symbol. The author has been a money-spinner for a host of other players, including the mass media and the publishers of some two dozen commentaries on the Code. So the scraps of known fact were enough to have already sparked the publication of guides to The Solomon Key, their pages filled with historical references to Freemasonry and to the actual Key of Solomon, a medieval book of magic and demonology. Greg Taylor, author of 2005’s The Guide to Dan Brown’s The Solomon Key, reacted to news of the title change with disappointment but expressed, fingers visibly crossed, his confidence that the content of the novel was unchanged.
Washington may not be Paris or Rome, Brown’s previous settings, but it and the more esoteric parts of American history are of abiding interest to Brown’s countrymen. That was proven by the success of Nicolas Cage’s two National Treasure films (2004 and 2007), which mined much 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. Brown too has long been fascinated with the capital’s symbol-rich environs. The Da Vinci Code’s book jacket includes text printed backwards that, when held to a mirror, reads, “Only WW knows.” That’s a passage taken from the sculpture Kryptos (meaning “hidden”), situated on the grounds of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Erected in 1990, sculptor Jim Sanborn’s S-shaped copper screen resembles a scroll, or a computer printout; it’s covered with four encrypted messages, each in a different cypher. Teams of analysts have cracked the first three parts, but the fourth remains elusive.
Among the deciphered parts is the sentence on the Code cover: WW is William Webster, former CIA director, to whom Sanborn handed an envelope with the solution. Sort of, that is: “I wasn’t completely truthful with the man,” a laughing Sanborn told Wired magazine. “I mean that’s part of tradecraft, isn’t it? Deception is everywhere—I definitely didn’t give him the last section.” If Langdon can make progress on Kryptos’s stubborn fourth part—and if Brown manages to entangle the Catholic Church in his hero’s affairs once again—The Lost Symbol seems likely to stay on bestseller lists a long, long time.
That’s good news for him and his publisher, but matters are less straightforward for the rest of the book trade. Only a portion of The Lost Symbol’s five million copies will land in actual bookshops. Online realtors, department stores, drugstores and even supermarkets will take their share, almost all of them selling it at steep discounts. Already, Amazon.ca is offering pre-orders at 50 per cent off the $36.95 cover price. Independent bookstores, which need every slice of profit margin they can get, typically sell books at full price, and Richard Bachmann, owner of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ont., doesn’t expect to sell many. He thinks he’s well out of what he calls “a race to the bottom—here’s a book people know they can sell, and what’s their first instinct? Sell it below cost.”
Worse, other publishers may rethink their launch dates in order to put some breathing space between their titles and Brown’s juggernaut. The Hachette Book group—whose prominent authors include Stephenie Meyer and Michael Connelly—has already announced it’s doing just that. So independent shops, which could otherwise look to other big-name writers to fill their Brown-less void, may have less to offer than in past fall seasons. Far from saving the day, The Lost Symbol’s initial surge could prove to be another blow to the most vulnerable sector in a beleaguered industry.
The Angels & Demons film, on the other hand, has a better chance of providing a happy ending for all involved, always excluding the Catholic Church. Again directed by Ron Howard, it once more features Tom Hanks as Langdon, racing against time to prevent the Illuminati from destroying Rome with antimatter while the Church’s cardinals are gathered there to elect a new pope.
The CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, where the antimatter was developed, calls in symbolist Langdon because a quarter gram of it has gone missing. And one of its physicists—who was also a priest—was found murdered, his eye gouged out and his chest branded with the ambigram “Illuminati.” (An ambigram is an “ambiguous anagram,” a typographical design that spells out a word or words from more than one perspective. American graphic designer John Langdon is one of their foremost popularizers; he provided ambigrams for the Angels & Demons cover, and a name for Brown’s hero.)
Langdon heads to Vatican City after he learns that’s where the Illuminati have hidden the antimatter, enough to blow up the city state, and finds that the four leading candidates for pope are missing. He attempts to find them and the antimatter by following the “Path of Illumination,” riddles hidden in plain sight at Roman landmarks. Armed with his occult expertise, he sets off on the path, only to find one dead cardinal after another, each killed in suitably symbolic fashion.
In other words, Angels & Demons is more of what made The Da Vinci Code tick, albeit without the enticing bride-of-Christ backdrop: more intricate puzzles (including ambigrams by the job lot) and more bizarre murders, all set in art-rich, religiously significant sites. Best of all, the Church hates the film every bit as much as it loathed its predecessor. The Vatican refused permission for filming in Roman churches—a ban Howard got around by sending in cameramen posing as tourists—but it has yet to call for a boycott. But the film’s marketers can still dream. P.G. Wodehouse liked to say that a bishop’s denunciation from the pulpit was “worth 50,000 in sales,” so a cardinal’s censure should be box-office gold. If the Vatican doesn’t play its usual role in The Lost Symbol, Doubleday can only pray that the Masons have the same Midas touch.