The Dan Brown Code
MUCH OF THE ACTION OF THE DA VINCI CODE is driven by a desperate hunt for "the keystone," a guide to understanding Christendom’s greatest secret. There’s a keystone to understanding Dan Brown, too, and Storrs figured it wouldn’t ruin the surprise if he thought about it right now.
The Dan Brown keystone is a seemingly inauspicious document that he filed with a London court in 2005. The authors of a book Brown consulted while writing his novel had sued, claiming he had stolen their material. Brown had agreed to write an affidavit. Once Brown gets to writing a good story, he has trouble stopping. And this was more than a good yarn. It was a chance to unveil a character he’d been developing for years: Dan Brown.
The affidavit turned into an exhaustive 75-page biographical portrait that included ruminations on what made his work so popular. All of his plots, Brown explained, took place during one hectic day. They were organized as treasure hunts wherein an academic adventurer plumbs the cryptic and the concealed for hidden truths.
The affidavit would provide Storrs with valuable guidance. For instance, Brown wrote that readers grow bored when they have to wade through long passages of dry exposition. They want to get back to the action.
His mind wandering, Storrs had allowed his car to drift in front of a truck in the next lane. The driver shot him an angry look. Storrs resolved to pay more attention.
An hour up the highway, Storrs rolled safely into Exeter, New Hampshire, Brown’s hometown. Exeter had been settled in 1638 by a man exiled from Boston after running afoul of the church. It’s been the kind of place where a guy could lay low ever since.
It was raining, and the haze made the town feel unnaturally quiet, as if it were protecting something worth hiding. It seemed like an atmosphere Brown would appreciate.
"My interest in secret societies came from growing up in New England, surrounded by the clandestine clubs of Ivy League universities, the Masonic lodges of the Founding Fathers, and the hidden hallways of early government power," Brown wrote in his affidavit. "All of this secrecy captivated me as a young man."
When, in his mid-thirties, Brown thought to try writing about that sort of thing, he rented a tiny office on Water Street, directly above a bookstore. This was the late ’90s, and he was paying the bills by teaching. In the mornings, he taught English at Phillips Exeter Academy, the exclusive boarding school he had once attended. He’d carve out time to write in his office in the early morning, arriving at 4 a.m.
Storrs found the entrance that led up to Brown’s old office. Brown had never put his name on the door, but rather a series of Egyptian hieroglyphs that spelled "Robert Langdon"—who, like his creator, had a diploma from Exeter and a soft spot for tweed. "I think a lot of people who read fiction sort of imagine the hero is who the author wishes he would be," Brown once said. "And that, in my case, is true."
But those hieroglyphs had long been scratched away, and Brown was gone. "He used to be kind of like a normal guy," said one shop clerk who no longer sees the author around town. "Now he’s hanging out with Howard Hughes."
DAN BROWN WAS BORN IN EXETER, NEW HAMPSHIRE, in 1964. His father, Richard, was a popular math teacher at the academy and the family lived in a boys dormitory on campus. They had no television, so the bookish boy spent hours in the public library, where, flouting his parents’ hope that he’d read literature, he devoured Hardy Boys mysteries instead. When Brown became a writer, he recalled those page-turners. He would keep his chapters short and, as often as he could, jump right into new scenes.
AT THE PHILLIPS EXETER TALENT SHOW, a teenage Dan Brown waited in the wings of the auditorium stage. He watched the other boys perform standup routines to impress their friends, or top-40 rock songs to impress the girls. When his turn came, Brown, shy and a little nervous, sang a sensitive song of his own composition and watched as his nonplussed classmates clapped politely. "He didn’t seem to care as much about the social norms," Laura Dabney told Storrs. She was a classmate of Brown’s and now worked as a psychiatrist. "It’s an interesting combination, isn’t it? ‘I’m shy, but I’m going to do things my way.’"
Years later, after he had become a published author, Brown returned to that stage to speak to students. Storrs knew an audiotape of that speech was kept in a vast archive beneath the school’s library.
I’ve got to get to the library, Storrs thought. Fast!