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Cracking the code to Dan Brown's success: The Lost Symbol likely another controversial bestseller

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Cracking the code to Dan Brown's success: The Lost Symbol likely another controversial bestseller

September 10, 2009

By Martha Worboy, Canwest News Service

Literary scholars around the globe must either be sharpening their claws or getting ready to pull their hair out.

Dan Brown's new novel The Lost Symbol is about to hit bookshelves Sept. 15. And if it's anything like his last screed The Da Vinci Code, it will dominate the book world for months (if not years) and astound critics, writers and scholars for its - in their judgements - lack of literary sophistication, despite its incredible mass appeal.

But even if Brown's bestselling historical thriller didn't please those in the literary know, it spent two years on the Top 10 bestseller lists and sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

Expectations are just as great for The Lost Symbol. Fans have been decoding clues on Twitter and analyzing Dan Brown's website in hopes of uncovering plot leads. Authors and publishers have scurried to change publication dates that won't compete with The Lost Symbol's arrival.

And Brown's publisher Doubleday has been preparing for book-selling domination with a first printing of five million copies and an early release of the book's cover, which was hyped as much as a movie premiere.

Despite the buzz, much of the literary elite remain unimpressed.

Salman Rushdie once called The Da Vinci Code ``a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.''

``Lazy'' and ``stale'' are the words Russell Brown, a retired contemporary literature professor at the University of Toronto, uses to describe Brown's writing.

``Even (for a book) aimed at a wide audience,'' he adds.

So how did an English teacher from New Hampshire become one of the world's all-time bestselling authors through a sloppily written detective story premised on the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

Russell Brown says the author succeed by turning a big-stakes historical story into a modern, edge-of-your-seat thriller.

``Although the idea (Dan) Brown built his book around - about Jesus and Mary Magdalene - was not new, and although the ideas Brown used about the (Holy) Grail had been advanced before, he put them into a lively fictional narrative that gave them a new vividness,'' Russell Brown explains.

For many readers, the lively fictional narrative meant they couldn't put the book down.

While many authors have tried their hand at copying the Da Vinci formula, nobody has come close to Dan Brown's success.

The Da Vinci Code follows Harvard symbologist Dr. Robert Langdon on a chase through London and Paris that sees him investigating a death in the Louvre, decoding ancient paintings, and, ultimately, discovering a great historical truth about the Holy Grail guarded by a secret society. (Many people now picture Langdon as Tom Hanks, thanks to the 2006 Ron Howard-directed movie)

Although he's quick to say The Da Vinci Code is not a literary achievement, Robert Thompson, a pop-culture historian at the University of Syracuse, credits its page-turning appeal to Brown's compelling conspiracist structure.

The novel is littered with cliffhangers, riddles and cryptic codes that create heightened suspense. But Brown never leaves his reader hanging for long. Puzzles are solved swiftly, allowing the plot to unfold at a rapid pace.

``This is a very satisfying read. Its biggest appeal is it's so fast moving and it's pleasurable to keep turning the pages,'' Thompson says.

``The fact is, Moby Dick is better written, but this is a lot easier to read. It's faster and does different things.''

Another thing The Da Vinci Code did when it was released in 2003 was spark controversy about the Roman Catholic Church. The book's subject matter drew sharp criticism from religious groups and sparked debate about the foundations of Christianity worldwide. The Vatican denounced the novel and appointed a cardinal to refute Brown's ideas.

All of this no doubt piqued more interest in Brown's book and drove up sales, and Brown added to the debate by defending his claims.

``The Da Vinci Code describes history as I have come to understand it,'' he said in an interview posted on his website.

``The art, the architecture, the secret rituals, the secret societies, all of it is historical fact,'' Brown asserted on the TODAY show in an interview with Matt Lauer.

It seems that, through Brown's interest in secret societies - The Lost Symbol is rumoured to focus on the world of Freemasonry - the author has created his own exclusive clique: Either you've read The Da Vinci Code or you haven't, and that also played a part in the book's hype, according to Russell Brown.

``After you finished it, you, too, were in the know. And you joined the group of those who had read it and were one up on those who had not,'' Russell Brown says. ``And if you had not read it, it made you want to become one of the initiates that had.''

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in Canada