Conspiring to succeed

His latest book, to be released next week, is tipped to outstrip Harry Potter as the fastest-selling novel of all time, yet the American author of The Da Vinci Code, which sold 80 million copies, is pilloried by critics for his literary ineptitude.

Dan Brown illustration by Kagan McLeod, for The National
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September 2009 has a good chance of becoming a landmark in publishing history. On the 15th of this month, Random House publishes a novel called The Lost Symbol. Ever since that date was announced, rival publishers have been tearing up their publication schedules in order, in the words of one London literary agent, "to get out of the way". The first English language print run for this novel will be 6.5 million. And there is a single reason for all this: that this book will have the name "Dan Brown" on the cover.

That week, Brown's follow-up to The Da Vinci Code will be the only game in town. Bookshop and supermarket alike will be piled high, public transport will be filled with people goggling at identical tomes, and the man who once described his books as "all treasure hunts of sorts" will pull in an epic haul of loot. There's nothing of Indiana Jones about the man himself, though: Dan Brown presents as an almost perfectly colourless author. He seldom gives interviews, and what he says when he does is bland and amiable to a fault.

He looks in his official photographs like a slightly square New England football dad: tweedy brown jacket; open-necked shirt with a button-down collar; preppy haircut; slightly puzzled smile. Brown is retiring, but not a recluse. If he has a chequered romantic career, a grudge against a rival author or a long-time battle with "demons", he has kept it hidden. Nothing in his demeanour, or life story, or prose suggests anything remarkable.

Yet this is the 45-year-old author of what some are predicting will be the fastest-selling novel in human history, outstripping Harry Potter. What we know so far about the book suggests that it will be along reassuringly similar lines to Brown's 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code: ancient secrets, nefarious conspirators (this time it's the Freemasons' turn) and coded messages. That's no surprise. Brown is candid about writing his thrillers to a formula - setting all his novels in a 24-hour period (The Lost Symbol spans only 12 hours) and making all of them revolve around hidden treasure, shadowy forces, and a "simple hero pulled out of his familiar world".

Like his protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, Brown gives every impression of being an ordinary man adrift in the extraordinary. Brown lives near where he grew up and he writes about the preoccupations he has had since childhood. Born in 1964, Brown was of solidly middle-class New England stock, the eldest of three children of a mathematics professor and a professional musician - "surrounded," as he has put it, "by the paradoxical philosophies of science and religion".

Brown's attraction to puzzles and treasure hunts - and, perhaps, his complex attitude towards religion - can be dated back to his youth: his father used to hide his Christmas presents round the house and Dan had to solve clues to find them. He went to high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, where his father taught maths. His mother Constance's musical career was focused on devotional music, and Dan was an active member of the church. He went on to Amherst College, where he graduated in 1986 with a degree in English and Spanish.

His first love was music. An accomplished pianist, Brown moved to Los Angeles and spent several years without success trying to establish himself as a singer-songwriter. He released four CDs, including 1993's self-titled Dan Brown. Promoted as "the next Barry Manilow", he wrote songs with titles like 976-LOVE and If You Believe In Love, and signed up with the National Academy of Songwriters in Beverly Hills.

There he met and, in Manilow mode, wooed Blythe Newlon, 12 years his senior. When in 1993 he packed in his musical ambitions and moved back home to New Hampshire to teach English, Newlon came with him, and they collaborated on a humorous self-help book - 187 Men to Avoid: A Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman - under the pseudonym Danielle Brown. They were married two years later. For a long time, Brown's interest in writing was in abeyance. Up until the point where he discovered his vocation, "almost all of my reading had been dictated by my schooling - primarily classics like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, etc". But then, on holiday in Tahiti in 1994, he picked up a copy of Sidney Sheldon's The Doomsday Conspiracy and his life changed.

"I quite literally woke up one morning," as he later recalled with characteristic felicity, "and decided to write a thriller that delved into NSA [the US National Security Agency]." He enjoyed no special success with that book, Digital Fortress - a saga of secret societies, races against time and fiendish codes - and nor with his second, Angels and Demons - a saga of secret societies, races against time and fiendish codes - or his third, Deception Point, a saga of secret societies, races against time and fiendish codes. It was with the publication of The Da Vinci Code, in March 2003, that everything went crazy.

A saga of secret societies, races against time and fiendish codes, that book has sold more than 80 million copies in 51 languages. It was a game-changing, industry-changing phenomenon: spawning not only the predictable host of imitators and parodists, but an entire industry of books purporting to be rebuttals and explications, commentaries and companions to Brown's text. So popular did it become, and so appealing were the conspiracy theories it embraced to the more literal-minded of its readers, that it managed to annoy the Pope.

The Catholic organisation Opus Dei released a 127-page document attacking the book's "errors", and the Vatican was reported to have given the Archbishop of Genoa the job of rebutting its "shameful and unfounded errors". In terms of sales, Brown now sits at a table with a very, very small handful of living authors: Stephen King, JK Rowling, JD Salinger and Harper Lee are probably there, with Stephenie Meyer creeping sepulchrally up to join them.

But the sales figures for most of those writers are combined over a career, or are for books that have been in print for half a century. Dan Brown sold 80 million copies of The Da Vinci Code in not much more than five years. Where there's brass, there's muck - and Brown has seen off more than one legal challenge over The Da Vinci Code. Most high-profile was the case against him for copyright infringement brought by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a 1982 book which rested on the same Biblical conspiracy theories as The Da Vinci Code. Brown won in court - on the amusing grounds, inter alia, that Baigent and Leigh had presented their own book as non-fiction.

The reviews have been less kind than the courts. If a worldwide cabal of snooty literary critics had to dream up an author to hate, they could do no better than Dan Brown, uniting as he does unimaginable popularity and titanic literary ineptitude. "Well, of course I knew it would be bad," wrote Christopher Hitchens in the online magazine Slate. "I just didn't know that it would be that bad. Never mind for now the breathless and witless style, or the mashed-paper characters, or the lazy, puerile reliance on incredible coincidence to flog the lame plot along ... "

"A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name," said Salman Rushdie. "The intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese," said Stephen King. "Unmitigated junk," said Anthony Lane. Several internet sites now offer detailed, word-by-word fiskings of the inanities contained on the first page of The Da Vinci Code alone. Brown's journalistic use of an occupational modifier - "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway..." - means that the bad writing in the book, arguably, begins before the first word, with that missing "The".

No matter. The author sails merrily above the hurly-burly, and if he is wounded by his critics he is wise enough not to show it. The only hint, perhaps, is that his personal website links to an article from The Guardian denouncing his detractors as snobs. Brown's success is not only an object demonstration of the fact that thrillers are writing-proof; it is a demonstration of the fact that they are also review-proof.

And Brown is serious about his craft. Though he does little or no publicity - a polite video message accepting an award is as much of a public appearance as he tends to make - he was revealing about the way he approaches his work in the 69-page witness statement he filed with the British court in the course of defending himself against the Holy Blood plagiarism action. He writes seven days a week, beginning at 4am, and times himself with an hourglass. On the hour, he sets aside his manuscript to do some press-ups.

"Writing a book is incredibly hard," he has said. "I would not wish it on my worst enemy." When it becomes especially hard, he has claimed, he uses gravity boots to hang upside-down as a way of overcoming writer's block. But having already sketched out a dozen or so future novels featuring his code-cracking hero, Dan Brown can hang up - or hang down - his boots for the moment. * The National