The Dan Brown Code
STORRS APPRECIATES A CLIFFHANGER as much as the next guy, but sometimes Brown’s devotion to his literary tricks meant he had to artificially break the action, only to return to the same scene in the very next chapter.
Storrs learned that the author is a member of the Abenaqui Country Club in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, where he maintains a respectable 9 handicap. It made Storrs wonder about Brown’s boasts about his prowess as a high school squash player—his music producer, Barry Fasman, recalled him saying he was ranked among the country’s top 10 junior players. But alas: Although Brown played for Exeter, he apparently wasn’t quite the phenom he claimed. "I think Dan’s [junior] squash career is a work of fiction also," said Bill Buckingham, communications director for U.S. Squash. Brown might have been nationally ranked while playing squash at Amherst, as he had also once said, but Storrs had no way of knowing. The college’s records were mysteriously incomplete.
Storrs suddenly realized that getting lost in the job of separating fact from fiction was to miss the point of Brown’s savvy self-promotion. His biography could be a sales tool, his persona a marketing device. In his books, Brown introduces his characters by their lofty accomplishments—renowned curators, famous scientists. In his life, perhaps Brown realized nationally ranked squash players are more interesting than middling ones; people who rub elbows with celebrities more fascinating than plain old English teachers.
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.