The Dan Brown Code
Brown was able to turn out his first three novels—Digital Fortress, Angels & Demons, and Deception Point—in just four years. They were all commercial failures, selling only 26,000 copies combined. He had once thrown away all his demo tapes from his music career, and, again troubled by his career prospects, he discarded boxes of notes and even his original manuscript for Digital Fortress. “This may sound surprising,” Brown wrote in his affidavit, “but both Digital Fortress and my music career felt like creative failures (as did Angels & Demons and Deception Point) and big boxes of old notes felt like painful reminders of years spent for naught.” He considered giving up, but Blythe said he should try once more.
Brown knew he wanted to look at the origins of the Catholic Church, and Blythe encouraged him to write about the slandering of Mary Magdalene, who she thought belonged in the pantheon of the church’s most important women. His father wasn’t sold on the idea, but said, perhaps in half jest, that women might like the idea. And women bought more books than men.
Frustrated with the lack of promotion of his earlier work, Brown found a new publisher, Doubleday, and a new agent, Heide Lange, who seemed a perfect fit for him for two reasons: He noticed her surname was an anagram of “Angel” and she had just signed a new writer to a million-dollar contract. “I wondered if Heide could get the same kind of money for my thriller idea,” he wrote his affidavit. She got him a $400,000 two-book contract, which was more money than he’d ever made writing. (After the success of The Da Vinci Code, Lange renegotiated a deal to reflect Brown’s status as the world’s most popular author.)
The money allowed Brown to quit his teaching job and write full time, which was good news because the new novel became the most labor-intensive project he’d ever tackled. The subject matter allowed him to blend his love of art, history, and secret codes. By the time the manuscript was finished, however, even he had lost sight of whether the story was any good. Meeting a visitor in his office shortly after handing it over to his publisher, Brown said, “I hope they like it.”
To hedge his doubts, Brown dove into the task of publicizing the book with unbridled zeal. He went on an extensive charm offensive, dining with executives of major bookstores and spending days on the phone with owners of smaller stores. It was far more glamorous than selling books out of the trunk of his car, as desperation for success had driven him and Blythe to do in the past.
This time around Brown also exerted an extraordinary control over his image. After the local Portsmouth Herald interviewed him for a story about the new novel, he wouldn’t allow the newspaper to use the photo it had taken of him. Instead, Doubleday distributed photos of Brown that looked eerily Robert Langdon–like: wearing a tweed jacket and a black turtleneck (he’s rarely been seen in public in anything else since). When he spoke to the press, Brown made sure to accentuate his scholarly approach, describing careful research in the Vatican archives and a meticulous devotion to accuracy. To readers who’d never heard of him, Brown would be seen as more than merely a writer of potboiler fiction—he’d be regarded as a dogged researcher who rooted out hidden secrets and dragged them into the light.
Honing a clear storyline took work. Brown once wrote that for every page he published, he needed to throw out 10 pages of extraneous material. He now set about doing the same sort of editing with his personal biography, deleting the parts that didn’t mesh with his new persona. He pulled from his website any mention of his days as a songwriter, as well as the clumsier pieces of self-promotion (any talk of the Secret Service, for one) that he’d used to sell his other books.
It is impossible to overstate the phenomenon that The Da Vinci Code became when it was released in March 2003. The excitement catapulted Brown’s previous novels onto bestseller lists worldwide, where on some his oeuvre occupied the top four spots. It was an unprecedented achievement.
By not announcing which details in his novel were true and which were fiction, Brown stirred readers to wonder. As a result, the book began to radically alter public perception of church tenets: At one point, according to a poll of British readers on the question of whether Jesus fathered a child, those who’d read The Da Vinci Code were twice as likely to believe he did, despite what they’d learned from the Bible. In some quarters, Brown’s word had become gospel.
It was all the cornerstone of a burgeoning industry. Every week, it seemed, a new group of coattail-riders appeared, a phenomenon that became known as “Brownsploitation.” There were books that debunked the “facts” of the novel (Da Vinci Code Decoded), unauthorized biographies (The Man Behind the Da Vinci Code), parodies (The Asti Spumante Code), and even a diet book (The Diet Code). Then there were the Hollywood adaptations of two of his novels that together grossed well over a billion dollars.
All the while, Brown found himself accosted by people who wanted him to debate the “secret history” of his novel, substantial details of which he claimed were entirely true. “I recall feeling defenseless,” Brown wrote in his affidavit. “The precise names, dates, places, and facts had faded somewhat in my memory.” He enlisted Blythe to provide him “a refresher course” on the research so he could speak with more authority. What he didn’t clearly reveal is that it only made sense she would be his teacher—after all, Blythe was the one who’d done much of the book’s research.
In 2005, the British authors of a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Brown’s publisher, claiming that the key revelation of The Da Vinci Code—that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene—had been lifted from their work. The case in London’s High Court revolved around Brown’s research methods and when exactly he had read Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
Brown’s publisher ultimately won the case—the judge ruled that a fiction writer can’t be told what he could borrow from a book billed as nonfiction, as Holy Blood was. And yet the judge wrote that Brown was not the “deep and thorough researcher” he made himself out to be in the media; that person was his wife. She read most of the reference material and gave Brown summaries that he would weave into his story. “Mr. Brown knew very little about how the historical background was researched,” the judge wrote. “He in my view simply accepted Blythe Brown’s research material.”
During the trial, Stan Planton, the longtime Brown researcher, got a barrage of calls from reporters curious about Brown’s methods. He told one that Blythe was “the quiet power behind the throne.” The off-script comments distressed Brown’s camp. “Stan heard from the handlers,” said Jim Barrington. “They said, ‘Hey, you can’t talk about that stuff.'”
For Brown, the court ordeal and the airing of his work habits stung. “That lawsuit really kicked a hole in him, I think,” said Barrington. “Dan started shutting down.”
Friends who had once exchanged a dozen e-mails a day with the author now got replies from personal assistants whose signature lines read “The Office of Dan Brown.” Ron Wallace, the mail-order music salesman, sent Brown a note of congratulations, along with a $5 commission check for the sales of his last one or two copies of the Angels & Demons CD. He asked Brown to send more copies. The businesslike reply said Brown wasn’t making any more. Wallace never heard from him again—though Brown did cash the $5 check.
In December 2003, Brown held a charity book signing at the bookstore beneath his old office in Exeter. It had been nine months since he had published The Da Vinci Code, and he was planning to spend the next 14 months wrapping up what would ultimately become The Lost Symbol. Over the subsequent six years, Brown would rarely resurface.
Originally slated for a 2005 release, The Lost Symbol has been pushed back several times under mysterious circumstances. “We call it life,” Brown’s publicist told Storrs by way of official explanation. “Dan went from being a mid-list writer to a superstar in the literary world.” But there were rumors as well: The London lawsuit forced him into conducting his research much more carefully. The release of the 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets—which, like Brown’s book, is set in Washington, DC, and involves the Freemasons—stole his creative thunder and prompted major rewrites. (“That has the ring of Dan Brown lore to me,” Brown’s publicist said.)
The delays have only heightened the demand for Brown’s next installment. It will have a first printing of 5 million copies, one of the largest ever for a novel. Today, Masons are as nervous as Catholics once were about the unique power of Brown’s characterizations, and the tendency of his readers to accept them as fact. Some Masons are already forming attacks that address his penchant for secrecy. “When The Da Vinci Code came out, Dan Brown was the underdog attacking the church,” says Mark Tabbert, an executive at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, a likely setting for The Lost Symbol. “What little I know about Dan Brown is that he had a desire to be famous, and you have to be careful what you wish for. Like a lot of authors, he thought he could write a book and keep himself hidden. He’s always been very coy about whether the fact of what he has written is true. If he had come out boldly and said everything is a fiction, that would have defused some things.”
It was dusk when Francis Storrs steered his car into Dan Brown’s quiet neighborhood in Rye Beach, about a half-hour drive from Exeter. Brown bought the property for $1.6 million a year and a half after The Da Vinci Code was published. Soon after, he petitioned the town to build a seven-foot-high wall around it.
Forbes magazine estimates that Brown has cleared over $200 million since the publication of the book. To help manage the fortune, he and his wife deputized their personal attorney and others to act as their agents for a number of limited-liability companies. One called Stellata handles books and screenplays. Another, Epilogue, presumably manages the couple’s growing real estate portfolio: According to town records, they have bought up some 15 acres bordering their original one-acre plot. By the end of the year, they hope to move into a massive house they are building even farther back from the road.
On this day, as the evening light faded, there was nothing more for Storrs to see. Brown’s house was invisible from the road, and the man himself had essentially been erased from any document pertaining to it. In his place there stood a real estate trust, its name—like so many things in Brown’s life—fraught with layers of symbolism. It was meant to conjure the Isles of Shoals, an archipelago at the edge of Rye Harbor, the place where legend has it the pirate Blackbeard buried his treasure. And the name also paid tribute to Brown’s alter ego, the hero from whom his own vast treasure derived.
Dan Brown called his property the Isle of Langdonia. And he was its king.
Francis Storrs awoke with a start.
I almost forgot that Brown’s novels end twice!
He slowly raised his head from his desk. For weeks, Storrs had been trying to sort through everything he had learned about Dan Brown’s life, but now he found himself fixed on something he’d not considered.
Could it be?
There is one idea that Brown returned to again and again: on his website, in public appearances, in court documents…
“I was reminded of the old truism that since the beginning of recorded time history has been written by the ‘winners,'” Brown wrote in his affidavit. History was not set in stone, he figured, but changed depending on who was telling the story.
Like the murmurs of spirits in the darkness, revelations already known echoed.
The quest to understand Dan Brown is the quest to kneel before a mythmaker with the genius to fashion himself into his most compelling character.
Like Robert Langdon in the Louvre at the end of The Da Vinci Code, Francis Storrs fell to his knees (or would have, if he weren’t already sitting down).
For a moment, he thought he heard Dan Brown’s voice…taunting from behind a wall of his own making…whispering from within the cash-lined cocoon of a multibillion-dollar industry of one…Have I got a story to tell you.