If the world of publishing had a colour code, that probably switched from grey to brown this week. Brown as in Dan Brown, who has conjured up yet another codes and conspiracies concoction with Inferno. The new release has swamped bookstores, nearly 10 years since the release of The Da Vinci Code. Just as the sexed-up 50 Shades genre displaced the ultraviolent Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, which itself birthed a scad of Scandinavian noir, expect a few million to be browsing Brown’s latest.
The secrecy surrounding Inferno was stunning. The very announcement of the title, in January, was an event. A spokesperson for Brown’s American publisher told the Wall Street Journal that Inferno’s specially-selected publication date was “written 5-14-13, which read backwards 3.1415 — the value of pi.” Scattering such titillating tidbits before a novel is released is as easy as pie for Brown’s publicity machine.
Trucks with tracking devices were used to ferry copies. Eleven translators were sequestered in an underground complex in Milan for nearly two months. A report stated: “Their computers were bolted in place, no cell phones were allowed inside, access to the Internet was restricted and monitored, and a strict log was kept of their actions to prevent anyone from leaving with any part of the embargoed novel.” Brown’s novel had more security than Hillary Clinton’s State Department provided to American diplomats in Benghazi.
Inferno gets its inspiration from 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and the city of Florence gets to be the major location. Brown’s language is often clunkier than a 1980 model Premier Padmini. One sentence from Inferno, for instance, goes into hirsute hijinks: “He had a shaggy beard, bushy moustache, and gentle eyes that radiated a thoughtful calm beneath his overgrown eyebrows.”
Most authors, though, would love to mimic Brown’s magic mantra. That he often gets ideas to flow into his head by hanging upside down in his home gym, won’t be a particularly helpful pointer. There may be simpler ways of aping Brown.
Not that there’s been lack of imitation. The success of The Da Vinci Code spawned a Brownian movement: There were copycat thrillers, companion books, books debunking Brown. But in terms of finding the formula to flourish, these faux Browns proved, unlike that novel’s protagonist, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, to be quite clueless.
Though plagued by plagiarism charges, and chided by the Catholic Church, Brown’s breakout, The Da Vinci Code, rescued the publishing industry from the first circle of hell, Limbo, where it appeared bound as the Harry Potter franchise was headed into its final instalments. In 2004, that novel, and three other previous Brown books, blockbustered their way into top spots on the New York Times bestsellers’ list. For an author who started his career co-writing 187 Men to Avoid: A Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman, that’s an epic journey.
In Inferno, Brown writes: “He could hear the mournful cries of human suffering echoing across the water.” That could apply to the anguished wails of a cabal of critics who have attempted to crack the spine of Brown’s books with savage reviews or the uttered oaths of authors of literary volumes, who sell fewer copies in their lifetimes than Brown does while brushing his teeth each morning. Alas, these slings and arrows have only led to his outrageous fortune: More than 200 million copies of his novels are in circulation.
The criticism won’t subside, like that from the professor of linguistics who described Brown’s writing as “ingeniously bad” or Salman Rushdie who described The Da Vinci Code as “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”. Those who would like to see a brownout of this phenomenon may even think it justified that the tome comes with a statutory warning replicating an inscription from the gate of Dante’s hell: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Meanwhile, the potentate of potboilers will be busy encashing royalty cheques.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal