The Dan Brown Code
Six years ago, Dan Brown was a failed songwriter and a middling author desperate for a big break. Well, he got it. His book The Da Vinci Code became the most popular novel ever, transforming the New England native into an international celebrity. Along the way, he deftly invented a new image, a persona straight from his novels: a dashing, scholarly interpreter of hidden truths. Now, on the eve of his long-awaited follow-up, The Lose Symbol, the myths and mysteries of this notorious recluse’s stunning rise are finally revealed.
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 Exter, 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!