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Why the critics are so wrong about Dan Brown

The famous man looked at the wooden lectern. On May 7, 2005, the horror author Stephen King gave the commencement address to graduates at the University of Maine, his home state.

In it, he half-joked: "If I show up at your house in 10 years from now. . . and find nothing on your bedroom night table but the newest Dan Brown novel . . . I'll chase you to the end of your driveway, screaming, 'Where are your books? Why are you living on the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese?'

An interesting comparison from a writer who endured a long, critical ice age, during which his own books would sell by the million but pass unnoticed in the posh papers' book sections. In 1982, in an afterword to the anthology Different Seasons, King referred to his own work as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and large fries", which makes this a unique case of the burger calling the macaroni cheese junk.

As I write, we are 24 days, 12 hours, 20 minutes and 11 seconds away from the internationally synchronised publication on September 15 of Dan Brown's next helping of processed slop, The Lost Symbol. (The title is, according to one source, as "opaque as possible" to deter pre-emptive companions, guides and rip-offs. When it was initially announced as The Solomon Key in 2006, several publishers rushed out books about King Solomon's book of magic.) The book's official website provides a continuous countdown, while designated Twitter and Facebook pages drip-feed clues about its content to the faithful.

It is six years since Brown's career-making fourth novel The Da Vinci Code, which changed the face of fiction publishing, spent 68 weeks at No 1 in The Sunday Times bestseller lists and 120 in the Top Ten. The Lost Symbol will have a global first print run of 6.5 million copies, the largest in the history of Random House. Anticipation and speculation are running at Harry Potter levels.

In The Da Vinci Code, the Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (now universally imprinted as Tom Hanks after two hit movies, despite being described as "Harrison Ford in Harris tweed" in the book) chases around Paris and London on a quest to decode a series of art-historical and numerical riddles before a dirty, centuries-old Roman Catholic secret about Mary Magdalene is deleted for ever. Despite its huge success -- 81 million copies now in print -- critics, commentators and contemporaries have fallen over themselves to damn Brown with not-even-faint praise.

Viewed through the prism of the media, his record-breakingly popular novels are universally condemned as dishonest tat. Writing in the Sunday Independent, Eilis O'Hanlon claimed: "Some books are more evil than others. The Da Vinci Code, for example, which spawned a slew of cod-historical potboilers. Then there's Mein Kampf, which was nearly as bad as Dan Brown's schlockbuster."

Meanwhile, the BBC's John Humphrys called The Da Vinci Code "the literary equivalent of painting by numbers, by an artist who can't even stay within the lines".

Mark Lawson, who at least gave it house room in The Guardian, spoke of "450 pages of irritatingly gripping tosh".

Salman Rushdie told those attending a lecture in Kansas in 2005 that The Da Vinci Code is "a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name".

On an edition of QI, BBC Two's comedy-panel quiz show, Stephen Fry pooh-poohed it as "loose-stool water".

Between all this bitter acrimony and the cacophony of ringing cash registers, you start to wonder if any other author in literary history has pleased and pissed off so many people at the same time.

I read it, in late 2004, for a far more prosaic reason: because everybody was reading it. I'm not one for confessional journalism, but I admit I loved it. Any deficiencies in style or research went unnoticed as I raced for the finish. I promise you I am not an idiot, but I was so taken with it that I bought the special illustrated edition and the Rough Guide.

The book's runaway success may well simply be due to reader-rewarding short chapters. Equally, it could be the code itself. After all, people love a puzzle.

Dan Brown claimed, in a rare 2003 television interview for the reclusive author on ABC's Good Morning America, that his interest in puzzle-solving was forged during his comfortable New Hampshire childhood:

"On Christmas morning, when other kids might find their presents under the tree, my siblings and I would find a treasure map, with codes, that we would follow from room to room."

The ensuing boycotts and plagiarism lawsuits can't have harmed sales either. Another rare Brown appearance was at the High Court in London in 2006, when Judge Peter Smith threw out a copyright-infringement claim from the authors of the 1982 non-fiction book The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail, which, ironically, did brisk renewed business. The year before he saw off a similar claim from the author of The Da Vinci Legacy, published in 1983, a similarly themed art forgery thriller, which was miraculously reissued in 2004.

Brown's books are certainly not sold off the back of the author's personality. A shy, enigmatic recluse who hasn't granted a formal, sit-down interview for six years, he comes to life, if at all, largely through clues unearthed by fans and reporters.

Brown was born in 1964 in Exeter, New Hampshire -- where, tellingly, he still lives -- to a maths teacher and "faculty wife", both choir directors at the local Episcopalian church.

He was inspired to write novels after reading Sidney Sheldon's The Doomsday Conspiracy on holiday in 1994 after some years attempting to make it as an Elton John-like singer-songwriter in Los Angeles.

He released two albums, Dan Brown and Angels & Demons, samples of which can be found online, but I wouldn't bother. (More interesting is his first book, 187 Men to Avoid, a toilet volume with one pithy description per page, such as "Men who stir-fry" and "Men who own hamsters", credited to Danielle Brown. You can buy it second-hand.)

As for the religious outrage, in casting the Roman Catholic Church as a sinister, secretive institution and caricaturing members of Opus Dei as masochistic monks, The Da Vinci Code made a lot of enemies within evangelical circles where the rising tide of militant atheism added to a modern persecution complex. The Vatican urged a boycott of The Da Vinci Code film, which went on to make $758m at the box office.

Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, the Vatican economics minister, said: "Let's be careful not to play their game. . . by giving them free publicity." Angels and Demons, set in Rome, was accused by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the US of "smearing the Catholic Church with fabulously bogus tales", and was attacked by the Bishop of Nottingham for "anti-Catholic sentiment". (Brown refutes these claims.)

Long-standing religious affairs correspondent Ruth Gledhill says: "His critics feel that he has exploited Christianity to make a name for himself. I think that they're making a big mistake -- they have to look at how they could benefit from it. One of the most interesting fallouts from the Dan Brown phenomenon is the wonderful effect it has had on Opus Dei, who have found that interest in their organisation has increased, which, along with the internet, has inculcated a new openness. He has made Opus Dei the religious version of a celebrity."

When, in April, the publication date of The Lost Symbol was confirmed, rival publishers immediately started rearranging their own schedules, bringing forward new books by high-profile authors to avoid a battle they could not realistically win, including Nick Hornby, Sebastian Faulks and William Trevor. Who can blame them?

Alison Barrow, the director of media relations at Transworld which publishes Dan Brown in the UK, told me: "We don't disclose actual spends but believe this to be the biggest marketing campaign ever staged for one book."

So what might readers expect? Well, Brown likes to plant codes in the dust jackets of his books, "in plain sight". On the US hardback of The Da Vinci Code, a series of bolded letters spelt out: "IS THERE NO HELP FOR THE WIDOW'S SON."

There are also references to a sculpture at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, called Kryptos. Add to these the cover designs of the new book, released in July, which depict a Washington skyline and a wax seal showing a double-headed eagle, a link to Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

There are already unauthorised books speculating about the content of The Lost Symbol, the most thoroughly researched being David A Shugarts's Secrets of the Widow's Son, published, remarkably enough, in August 2005. He postulates that "the widow's son" might be King Solomon's master architect Hiram, or even Jesus.

One thing is certain though, and that is healthy sales. Although there is "no such thing as a completely 'safe bet'", Brown's publishers say: "We genuinely hope that The Lost Symbol will be the biggest ever hardback adult novel since records began."

The Lost Symbol will be published by Transworld on September 15, at €24.99