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Da Vici Code's last secret

The film will be premiered at the Cannes on May 17.

india Updated: May 17, 2006 10:42 IST

It may be the last mystery left about The Da Vinci Code - how did a work by a near unknown author and sneered at by some of literature's leading lights become one of the best-selling novels of all time?

With well over 40 million copies sold worldwide and the film version of the novel set to open the prestigious Cannes film festival on Wednesday, it is a question that scores of authors and would-be ones would love an answer to.

To hear some people tell it, author Dan Brown stumbled on the literary equivalent of turning lead into gold.

They say his was a formula that mixed clumsy, forgettable sentences with breakneck pacing, lectures on art, history and religion, sinister conspiracies, evil villains, puzzles and cliffhanger chapter endings to produce literary gold.

While some like novelist Salman Rushdie called the book "typewriting" and others, like critic Laura Miller, called it "cheesy", book industry professionals refuse to sneer, saying this was far from a case of good things happening to a bad book.

It was instead a case, they said, of all a reader's wants appearing to be conveniently located in a single book, especially the desire to learn something.

In this case, the teaching was about a highly debatable thesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants continue through the present day.

Nick Owchar, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, said:

"My theory is that non-fiction sells better than fiction and this book has a heavy concentration of history and purported facts that people have taken to. It doesn't read well as a novel but it reads well as an encyclopedia.

"The book challenges the familiar story of Jesus's life but it is also challenges ideas that for a vast number of Americans are a familiar part of their faith and people enjoy toying with things that are subversive."

Journalist Peter Boyer, who analysed in this week's New Yorker how Hollywood carefully handled the marketing of the movie, said that at the heart of the book is a thesis that: "Christianity as we know it is history's greatest scam, perpetrated by a malignant, misogynist, and, when necessary, murderous Catholic Church."

Boyer said Brown tapped into a hunger not just for spirituality but for alternate constructs of faith -- similar to the public interest in the Gnostic gospels and even the Gospel according to Judas.

Beyond that, the novel was also boosted by an innovative marketing campaign that helped it hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list within a week of publication, something unheard of for a book by a little known author.

Stephen Rubin, the publisher of Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, said that he and his staff knew they had something exceptional the minute they received the first 120 pages of the book.

They sent out 10,000 advance copies of the book to booksellers, critics, media and advertising people -- a gigantic number for such an undertaking.

Soon, as Publishers Weekly senior editor Charlotte Abbott noted, they had enlisted the nation's booksellers as fans of the book, ready to sell it for all they were worth.

The first reviews were ecstatic -- the New York Times reviewer summed up her feeling in one word: "Wow", and compared it to Harry Potter for adults.

Doubleday even ran a teaser ad in the New York Times on day one of publication. In a corner of many pages of the newspaper, it ran a tiny box ad that showed the Mona Lisa and asked why this person was smiling.

A puzzle still to be solved for authors dreaming of writing the next Da Vinci Code.

First Published: May 17, 2006 10:42 IST