The Dan Brown Code
IT WAS LIKE A SCENE RIPPED FROM THE PAGES OF A THRILLER.
Dan Brown was startled by the ring of his cell phone.
He was at a Starbucks in Seattle, alone and sipping a cup of dark coffee. He was soon due at a bookstore, where he would read from his new novel, a 454-page volume he called The Da Vinci Code. A struggling writer, Brown had penned three previous novels that all flopped, and the lack of recognition had him thinking about going back to his job as a high school teacher.
Brown took the call. It was Jason Kaufman, his editor, on the line from Manhattan. After just two days in stores, The Da Vinci Code had already sold more hardcover copies than Brown’s earlier novels combined. But there was more incredible news, said Kaufman. Your book is going to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list!
A shock jolted Brown’s body. He tumbled from his chair, spilling his coffee, and collapsed on the tile floor. He had always fantasized about writing a blockbuster novel—indeed, he regularly consulted a how-to book called Writing the Blockbuster Novel—and now his dream had come true.
His mind reeling, Brown pulled himself to his unsteady feet. He lunged for the nearest exit and staggered out into the street.
A realization washed over him. No matter what happens, I’ll always have a number one bestseller to my name.
The path suddenly laid out before him, Brown knew, would change his life forever. He never could have imagined how much.
FRANCIS STORRS AWOKE SLOWLY.
A digital alarm clock was buzzing in the darkness—an electronic, familiar buzz.
He fumbled to turn the clock off. Squinting in the morning gloom, he saw a copy of The Da Vinci Code splayed open on his bedcovers.
I must have fallen asleep!
He spotted three other thick paperbacks stacked nearby, Digital Fortress, Angels & Demons, and Deception Point, the nearly forgotten Dan Brown tomes that had sold at a dizzying clip after The Da Vinci Code was released.
Slowly, the fog began to lift.
Until well after midnight at his Arlington home, Storrs had been poring over the books for clues about their author. Dazed, he glanced at the bedside clock. It was 6 a.m.
The journalist groaned. He knew he was in a race against time. Six long years after releasing The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s publishers had finally announced that his next novel, The Lost Symbol, would appear in September. It would be the most anticipated follow-up in the history of publishing. With an astounding 81 million copies in print, The Da Vinci Code has redefined the blockbuster; Storrs did the math…in the six years since its release, a copy has sold roughly every two seconds. Reportedly the only title to do better is the Bible. And with unprecedented sales had come unprecedented criticism: Readers who took umbrage at the novel’s provocative depictions of the Catholic Church harangued Brown at book signings. One cardinal called it "a sackful of lies."
Rather than defuse the commotion with calming assurances that his book was harmless fiction, Brown allowed readers to accept the idea that much of his story was rooted in fact. Then he retreated from view, crafting himself into an enigma, swearing friends and family to secrecy, obscuring his business dealings behind a veil of murky limited-liability companies. With the help of a shadowy network of agents and publicists, Brown cultivated an air of inscrutability that lends his books a powerful mystique.
You could say Dan Brown has been living in a novel of his own design. But unlike the heroic pursuer of clues he writes about, he’s become a jealous protector of his own legend, like some modern-day Templar Knight.
Now was the perfect time to tell his story—Storrs knew The Lost Symbol would flush Brown out of hiding and back into the spotlight. There would be a pleasing symmetry to it, too. Storrs remembered the scene in The Da Vinci Code where the book’s hero, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, is picked as one of the Hub’s "top 10 most intriguing people" by Boston magazine, which describes the globetrotting academic as a "Harrison Ford in Harris tweed." Rising to give a lecture early in the novel, Langdon brushes off the attention. "Boston magazine," he says, "clearly has a gift for fiction."
Now, as Brown’s return to public view approached, it was the author himself who intrigued. All the more so after Storrs contacted his high-powered publicist. She said the author wouldn’t speak to the press right now, that he was busy. And when Storrs asked what he was up to, she said, "It’s all a secret."
Storrs pulled himself out of bed, showered, and dressed in a well-worn pair of khakis and a camel-hair sport coat (he didn’t own a Harris tweed). Stuffing his canvas shoulder bag with notebooks and a state-of-the-art digital tape recorder, he jumped into his 1998 Honda Civic and turned the key.
His mind returned to a Da Vinci Code passage he had underlined the night before. "Langdon viewed the world as a web of profoundly intertwined histories and events. The connections may be invisible, he often preached to his symbology classes at Harvard, but they are always there, buried just beneath the surface."
Coaxing his Civic onto the Route 95 on-ramp in Burlington, Storrs pressed his foot to the accelerator. He was headed north to New Hampshire. He was going to follow the symbols.
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!
PHILLIPS EXETER ACADEMY IS A STAID, IVY-CLAD INSTITUTION that calls to mind a miniature Harvard. Library archivist Edouard Desrochers was not due at his office until after lunch, so Storrs decided to dig around the library for clues.
The Louis Kahn–designed building is the largest high school library in the world, and Storrs took the stairs to the top floor, where he slipped into a room that held books published by notable Exonians such as Gore Vidal and John Irving. In one bookcase, behind glass doors, he found a shelf taken over with Brown’s work. Storrs tried opening the case. It was locked. Luckily, a quick search through the library’s advanced computerized database revealed that most of the titles were available on other floors.
Brown’s first try as an author was a humorous 1995 self-help book called 187 Men to Avoid, which included a prescription to avoid "men who write self-help books for women." He published the slim title under the pseudonym Danielle Brown, and three years later came out with another humor volume, The Bald Book, under his wife’s name—an early indication of their little-talked-about collaboration that continues today.
By that time, Brown was at work on his first novel, Digital Fortress, which he released in 1998. Pulling it and Brown’s three subsequent books from the shelf, Storrs recalled something the author had written in his affidavit. "In my childhood, I was taught never to write in books…. In fact, when I first became published and people asked me to sign their editions, I felt funny about it."
As he thumbed through three library copies of The Da Vinci Code autographed by the author, Storrs thought, Well, perhaps that’s a reluctance he’s overcome.
THE ESTEEMED ARCHIVIST EDOUARD DESROCHERS is a slight, balding man who knows Brown well enough to have inspired a character of the same name in The Da Vinci Code. He greeted Storrs with a warm handshake and a smile. Yet when Storrs explained that he was there to have a look at the library’s Dan Brown material, a dark look passed across Desrochers’s face.
Storrs would have to talk to Julie Quinn in the school’s communications office, Desrochers said. In fact, he was going to call her right now. In a moment of foreboding, Storrs realized that powerful wheels had just been set in motion.
A YEAR BEFORE THE DA VINCI CODE came out, Brown attended a high school reunion. At one point, he stood up and proudly announced he was now a figure of some renown: "I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually an author." The statement suggested to some that Brown already thought of himself as successful, before he’d actually achieved any real success.
By the time of his 25th class reunion in 2007, Brown had become the most popular author in American history. He showed up again, defying the expectations of starstruck classmates. "It’s kind of hard to look at a guy who has sold millions of books and not be like, ‘Wow,’" says classmate Peter Scocimara. "But he was really normal about it."
Well, there was one thing that didn’t mesh with the image of Brown as a modest guy. Playing on a continuous loop in the auditorium during part of the reunion was a slideshow of Brown’s personal photographs from the set of The Da Vinci Code movie, starring Tom Hanks, which had come out a year earlier. The snapshots of the globetrotting writer said much more than a speech ever could have.
JULIE QUINN, PHILLIPS EXETER’S DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, met Storrs at the door to her lushly carpeted office. She got right to the point.
"Dan has asked us not to release anything from his time here," Quinn said, fixing Storrs with a steady gaze.
There was an awkward moment as she and Storrs both seemed to realize the irony of a writer—one whose research had benefited from the help of a librarian at that very school—demanding that library materials related to him be kept hidden. No tapes of speeches. No flipping through novels locked behind fancy glass doors. An uncharitable thought flickered through Storrs’s mind: Were the school’s academic values perhaps compromised by a recent gift of $2.2 million from Brown and his two siblings?
As if reading his mind, Quinn continued. "That’s our policy for all alums—and students, as a matter of fact."
Of course, most alumni never ask for such things to be sealed. Storrs was beginning to wonder if Dan Brown had something to hide.
WITH THE TRAIL GROWING COLD AT EXETER, Storrs wondered what he could uncover from Brown’s days at Amherst College. He reached Alan Lelchuk, who taught the creative-writing seminar that Brown later credited with helping him become a novelist. Brown’s writing from the class left little impression on Lelchuk. Of course, it would have been easy for anyone to be eclipsed by the enormous talent of fellow student David Foster Wallace, the heady prose stylist now regarded as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. "With Dan, he was not the star of the class, as David was, as were one or two others who were really quite good," Lelchuk told Storrs.
"Dan was good," he finally admitted, as if for the sake of politeness. "But in a much quieter way."
Storrs placed a call to the bestselling mystery writer Harlan Coben, who was in a fraternity with Brown at Amherst and later supplied a glowing blurb for The Da Vinci Code book jacket. Coben promptly hung up on him. Storrs then e-mailed the director of the Amherst Glee Club—a group Brown had belonged to—only to get a terse reply: "Sorry, directions from Dan: No comment." It seemed that word of Storrs’s quest had gotten to Brown.
Storrs was mulling this possibility at his desk in Boston when he was handed a small cardboard package bearing the exotic postal code 61604. Peoria, Illinois. His pulse quickened. He tore open the envelope and shook out several mail-order music catalogs.
In his affidavit, Brown mentioned that readers love to learn about the "secret history" of things. Dan Brown’s own secret history involved the decade or so after college that he spent trying to make it big as a songwriter in Hollywood.
The package Storrs received had been sent by a guy named Ron Wallace who sold cassettes and CDs via mail order. He carried Brown’s first album, SynthAnimals, which was made for kids and billed as "one of those rare children’s tapes that won’t drive you crazy on car trips." That was followed by three albums geared toward adult listeners, culminating with Angels & Demons, a title Brown would later recycle for his second novel.
Storrs located an old promotional blurb about Brown’s third album. "No expense was spared in the recording of this album. The tracks were cut in some of the nation’s finest studios with some of the most accomplished musicians living today," wrote a well-connected music publicist named Blythe Newlon. "We believe Dan Brown is an artist destined to become a major talent."
She would make sure of it.
PRETTY MUCH THE FIRST THING a prep school student like Dan Brown learns in high school is the value of networking. And when he settled in Hollywood, one of the first things Brown did was join the National Academy of Songwriters, a now-defunct trade organization for composers. There, he met Blythe Newlon, who helped teach young songwriters how to promote themselves. They quickly fell for each other, but worked to keep the relationship a secret lest other struggling songwriters think Brown was getting special treatment.
Through the academy, the nervous performer got a gig at a songwriters showcase, and when Brown bombed, it was Blythe who lobbied to get him another shot (also a bomb). Ever image-conscious, Blythe taught Brown that he needed more than catchy songs to become famous, that he could enlist big names to help him manufacture a reputation. She helped recruit an all-star team of musicians who had collaborated with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson to appear with him.
"[Blythe] was everything [Dan] wasn’t: an extrovert, a great schmoozer. She understood how the business worked," said Paul Zollo, a music journalist who worked with Blythe. "At parties, Dan would be shy and stand in a corner by himself. Blythe would be schmoozing, introducing people to him. She was great at all the things he was uncomfortable with."
The couple’s attraction seemed, at times, rooted in shared ambition. When Zollo published his second book, Songwriters on Songwriting, he heard that Rolling Stone was going to review it. "A lot of people didn’t care, but Dan seemed to come alive—it really seemed to matter to him," Zollo recalled. "It was clear with Blythe and Dan that commercial success was what they were after."
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.
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.
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.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/08/the-dan-brown-code/