The Dan Brown Code
ON AN APRIL DAY IN 1993, Blythe Newlon and Dan Brown lay beneath the swaying palm trees of a Tahitian beach (Brown believes readers like to experience exotic locations). His music career wasn’t taking off. On the beach, Brown picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon’s thriller The Doomsday Conspiracy and read it in one sitting. Putting the book down, he thought, I can do this.
Coupled with his minor success publishing 187 Men to Avoid—which Blythe had helped sell to a publishing company for $12,500—Brown figured he’d become a novelist. Life seems to be trying to tell you something, Blythe told him. And when Blythe told Brown something, he listened.
By that point, according to one fellow vacationer, Blythe was introducing herself as Brown’s agent. They wed in 1997, and while promoting The Da Vinci Code Brown began one story by saying, "I remember telling my agent, or rather, telling my wife—that was a Freudian slip. Behind every great man…." He didn’t finish the thought. But it was true that Blythe had put her support squarely behind him, announcing to friends in California that she was giving up her career and they were moving to New England so that Brown could focus on writing a novel.
Almost instantly, Brown unemotionally exchanged his music-industry contacts for people who could help him write books. "Dan is very, very compartmentalized," said Stan Planton, an Ohio librarian who would help him research his novels. Brown belonged to Mensa, and tapped its members for research help on his first novel, Digital Fortress. Jim Barrington, an Ohio attorney who met him through the organization, was struck by Brown’s excitement about his new career. The more he distanced himself from his music-industry failure, the more charming and self-confident he became. "They say Bill Clinton has that quality, the ability to make you feel like you’re the only person in the room," Barrington said. "Dan is like that."
The shy musician had disappeared. Ron Wallace, the mail-order music salesman, never heard from Brown after he moved back East. "At some point in his life," Wallace says, "he destroyed his past. It’s sad—your past is who you are."
THROUGH BLYTHE, BROWN learned that molding his persona was simply a matter of deciding what he wanted people to believe. He developed a flair for the sound bite. Just as he knew that exotic locations helped create an image, so, too, could dropping the names of famous people. Who can spend time in Hollywood without learning that? Storrs thought. Before Brown abandoned his music career, a local reporter asked him about his day job teaching at a private school in Beverly Hills. "Parent-teacher conferences at a place like Beverly Hills Prep can get pretty interesting," Brown was quoted as saying. "Try looking Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner in the eye and saying, ‘Hey, your kid’s a lazy bum and if he doesn’t shape up, he’s going to fail my course.’ Now that’s exciting!"
In 1998, when Brown published Digital Fortress, he had the foresight to develop a website, DanBrown.com, to go with it. According to the site, Brown had gotten the idea for Digital Fortress after the Secret Service "showed up and detained" an Exeter student who had sent an e-mail threatening President Clinton. The story helped Brown get some press, but it turns out that it didn’t happen the way he told it—in fact, the Secret Service later told Vanity Fair‘s Seth Mnookin that they had never even visited Exeter.
Now Storrs wondered about that Beverly Hills Prep anecdote he’d read. He tracked down a former teacher, who whispered that the school had closed and that it wasn’t the kind of place Brown’s quote implied. Storrs wondered, Did any of Eisner’s or Murdoch’s kids even go there? Eisner’s people wouldn’t say; Murdoch’s spokesperson had only a three-word answer: "They did not."
IN MOMENTS OF HIGH DRAMA, THE minds of Dan Brown’s characters tend to leap around a lot. It’s a device that allows him to shoehorn some exposition into his action.
Storrs’s mind leapt back to his visit to downtown Exeter. He had stopped by the town library, where he’d found a copy of the illustrated screenplay for The Da Vinci Code. In the foreword, Brown poked fun at his failed attempt to write the screenplay himself. "On the universal scale of humbling experiences, attempting to adapt this novel for the screen was on a par with attempting to learn golf," he wrote. "I’m a natural at neither, and I have since decided both are best left to the professionals."
On his computer, Storrs called up the website of the United States Golf Association, where players can go to record their scores. He entered Brown’s name.
There was one exact match in New Hampshire.