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The Editor's View March 05


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

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Clues in. The Da Vinci Code gives authors a formula for a best-seller

I suppose you could say that The Da Vinci Code industry is now official. Early in February Jeremy Paxman's Newsnight team ran an item on The Da Vinci Code phenomenon.

The book has sold more than 17 million copies, The Louvre and other sites mentioned in the book have reported double the number of visitors, Opus Dei is - not surprisingly - upset about the negative publicity and literary snobs without a tenth of author Dan Brown's ability, are ganging up against it. He must be delighted.

In Westminster Abbey a sermon was preached against the book and somebody has published a Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code. A few historians have popped out of the woodwork to claim there are errors in the book but Dan Brown has never claimed that it is a work to rival The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Churchill's History of the English-speaking Peoples.

It is nothing more or less than a rattling good yarn, well told against a background of historical fact and fancy. Almost faction, in fact.

But to writers attempting to emulate Brown, what can they learn from the book? There is much.

While there is no logical base for saying that 17 million people cannot be wrong Brown must be doing something right.

Try a simple analysis and see what kind of answers you find. How does the opening grab you?

Well, a murder in the Louvre is attention-grabbing to say the least. What did somebody say about location? Of course it's possible to fall in love or witness a murder by the freezer section in Tesco, but the reader who is waiting to part with his £6.99 is more likely to be enticed by an exotic location.

As our competition judging panel would agree:

A superlative opening to a first class story.

Title? Intrigue here. The Da Vinci Code. One to rival The Ipcress File or The Bourne Identity. You will find in this issue an article on titles for books and features. Do not underestimate the importance of titles.

As we say, anybody who says you can't judge a book on its jacket has never talked to the book buyer at Borders.

Plot and theme? Well we can forget about semantics for a while and say that the thrill of the chase and a murder hunt embracing Paris, London, New York and Edinburgh is exciting enough but the underlying theme is connected with the Holy Grail and the historical subservient position of women in the Judaeo-Christian religion.

Such is the accuracy of much of the background that the story is utterly believable.

Action and pace? It almost leaves you breathless. Brown throws in crisp short sentences and chapters which move the story along at a pace without debasing the language or patronising the reader.

In addition he has a gift for a cliff-hanger near the end of most chapters which keep the reader turning the pages.

Characters? Creative writing tutors are always telling us that today's stories are character driven (unlike yesterday's stories by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Hardy?) and here Dan Brown has established a hero who will be the subject of fan clubs and societies for years. Robert Langdon, Professor of Religious Symbiology at Harvard University is at first glance an unlikely hero to be dashing about Europe performing acts of derring-do. You can almost hear the clipped accents of Harvard, reminiscent of Jack Kennedy and Tom Lehrer. This is an intelligent action man who will have half the book-reading population (or are more than half of the book-reading population female?) following his every move.

This is no one-character epic to stand or fall on one super-star - Tom Hanks - when it is filmed.

Bezu Fache, the French police captain, offers a multi dimensional profile, while actresses around the world must have been queuing to audition for the role of Sophie Neveu. As you read the book she flashes instantly into mind and you would not need to be Spielberg to decide how you cast her.

Even the lesser characters are well drawn, sometimes in colours which may be a touch too vivid but against the canvas of the book they work.

Entertainment: As P D James puts it: 'writers are there to entertain' and not even the most jaundiced critic could complain of the entertainment value of The Da Vinci Code. Such is its magnetic brilliance that the sales of Brown's other and lesser books have received a boost to their sales.

Dialogue is crisp and in character while the quality of writing - allegedly peanut butter prose according to one sour grapes critic - is taut and informative without ever talking down to readers.

Debunking the book is now an industry in the United States, one fuelled by the news that Brown has earned £140 million from his books.

A reclusive figure, Brown lives with his art historian wife Blythe in New Hampshire. He first learned about the mysteries surrounding Leonardo's work while studying art history at Seville University.

"From then on I was captivated," he said.

But he is stunned by the book's success and the way it has affected so many people. He insists that it is a 'work of fiction set against accurate historical facts'.

How did he decide to become a writer? While on holiday in Tahiti in 1994 he picked up a copy of Sydney Sheldon's Doomsday Conspiracy - and thought: 'I could do that.'

Brown's father was a mathematician and his mother a composer so he grew up against an academic-artistic background.

Now his writing day begins at 4am and every hour he breaks briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups and quick stretches. "I find this helps to keep the blood and ideas flowing."

Right then, everybody. On the floor, face down. One! Two. . . .


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2005. Reproduced from the December-Januray edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.