By JANET MASLIN
Take a sacred treasure. Add a secret conspiracy. Attach a name well known to scholars — Dante, Poe, Wordsworth, Archimedes, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, the Romanovs, Vlad the Impaler, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” whatever — and work it into a story that can accommodate both the Glock and the Holy Grail. If there’s any room left for the Knights Templar or DNA samples from Biblical figures, by all means plug them in.
Thanks, Dan Brown. Look what you started. In the sound-like-Brown genre the stakes are high, the scruples are absent and the copycatting is out of control. Your own next book (possibly to be called “The Solomon Key,” arrival date unknown) is already a pre-sacred text.
“The Solomon Key” is so hotly anticipated that it has prompted a not-half-bad “Guide to Dan Brown’s ‘The Solomon Key.’ ” Its author, Greg Taylor, has conducted intriguing research into your supposed subject matter, about which you have dropped quite a trail of Internet breadcrumbs. (The Freemasons and the founding fathers just may figure in your plotting.) As befits his material, Mr. Taylor is more concerned with connect-the-dots cryptology than with verification. So he is not troubled that his primary source, namely your book, doesn’t officially exist.
Meanwhile there are many others who study your tactics and mimic your tricks. Riding your coattails, they have established their own Pavlovian relationships with the reading public. You are the reason we can look forward to something called “The Archimedes Codex” in May.
The much-borrowed Brown formula involves some very specific things. The name of a great artist, artifact or historical figure must be in the book’s story, not to mention on its cover. The narrative must start in the present day with a bizarre killing, then use that killing as a reason to investigate the past. And the past must yield a secret so big, so stunning, so saber-rattling that all of civilization may be changed by it. Probably not for the better.
This formula is neatly summarized on the cover of Julia Navarro’s “Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud,” a copy so blatant that it managed to knock “The Da Vinci Code” out of the top spot on Spain’s best-seller lists. It goes like this: “One of History’s Most Sacred Treasures … An Age-Old Secret Conspiracy…Now the Truth Is Revealed …” Or as the cover of Michael Gruber’s forthcoming “Book of Air and Shadows” puts it: “A distinguished Shakespearean scholar found tortured to death. A lost manuscript and its secrets buried for centuries. An encrypted map that leads to incalculable wealth.” These are clues in the hunt for a hidden treasure for which men are willing to kill — and die. It’s a tough guy’s game. Sensitive types need not apply.
Similar jacket copy heralds “The Alexandria Link,” by Steve Berry, whose five novels have all been variations on this game plan. Mr. Berry’s latest bait is the lost Egyptian Library of Alexandria. The cover summary says: “At stake is an explosive ancient document with the potential not only to change the destiny of the Middle East but to shake the world’s three major religions to their very foundations.” The premise of “The Alexandria Link” is that if there were ancient texts to prove that the Old Testament had been mistranslated, the conflicting Arab and Israeli claims to Palestine might be understood in a different way.
Mr. Berry’s characters are barely skin-deep, but he’s better than most at this kind of storytelling. (For sheer readability, he approaches Diane Setterfield, whose “Thirteenth Tale” offers a more genteel, Brontë-ish spin on the search-for-buried-secrets format.) Mr. Berry can toss around terms like the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Septuagint, the Magellan Billet, the Codex Sinaiticus and Cassiopeia Vitt (this last one is a character) with impressive ease. And his books do hurtle, piling on the obligatory layers of mystery and bursts of violence, occasionally spicing them up with a museum-quality clue.
Mr. Berry this time refers to the 17th-century painting “The Shepherds of Arcadia II,” by Nicolas Poussin. But the search by writers for unused symbolic artifacts is so desperate that he does not have Poussin to himself. The much clumsier “Unholy Grail” by D. L. Wilson (which links its big revelation to Jesus’ brother James) makes use of “The Shepherds of Arcadia,” also by Poussin and a variation on similar themes. Bonus: Both paintings, like “The Da Vinci Code,” lead readers to the no-longer-secret society called the Priory of Sion.
One other common factor in these books is geography. Not specific geography, just the ability to hopscotch around the globe. So William Dietrich’s seemingly computer-titled “Napoleon’s Pyramids” moves from Napoleon’s France to Egypt as it investigates a medallion that “may solve one of the greatest riddles of history — who built the Great Pyramids, and why.” Its answer, again according to jacket copy, “is more shocking than anyone could ever have imagined.” Anyone, that is, who hasn’t tried to replicate Mr. Brown’s verbal DNA.
“The Echelon Vendetta” by David Stone also spans some distance, “from the fog-shrouded mazes of Venice to the beautiful Big Sky country of the American West.” And it employs the mock precision that is so beloved in this kind of thriller. Its prologue murder scene specifies the date, weekday, trailer camp, town in Idaho and local time at which a sadist in cowboy boots drops a stealth name for Geronimo (“Goyathlay”) and tortures his victim to death. (“The first cuts were not the deepest.”)
“The Fifth Vial” by Michael Palmer, an organ-theft medical thriller, skips from Boston to South American to Chicago to Florida. Despite its whiff of Michael Crichton, it nods to the classics — Mr. Brown’s — with characters calling themselves Laertes and Socrates. And its globe-trotting keeps it “moving ever closer to the ultimate confrontation against a deadly secret society with godlike aspirations and roots in antiquity.”
In “The Mosaic Crimes” by Giulio Leoni, a novelty item even for this novelty-filled genre, Dante Alighieri — yes, that Dante Alighieri — does detective work in 14th-century Florence. What was the meaning of the death of an artist working on a mysterious mosaic? “Was it an alchemist’s formula to transform lead into gold?” asks the book jacket. “Did it have to do with Antilia, wild and beautiful, who dances nightly in a tavern owned by a one-armed crusader?” During the course of the story Dante sounds suitably poetic as he thinks to himself: “How many times have I questioned human perfidy? Now I find myself facing it in its most despicable form.”
Novelists dragoon poets at their own peril. Thus does Val McDermid shoehorn William Wordsworth into “The Grave Tattoo” and get him involved in the events described in “Mutiny on the Bounty.” For those who find the previous sentence a bit of a stretch, consider this stratagem: Ms. McDermid introduces her main character, a waitress named Jane Gresham. Ms. McDermid quickly mentions sweatpants, graffiti and CDs to establish that Jane lives in modern times.
Since Jane is also a Wordsworth scholar, the book allows her to examine a curious trove of Wordsworth’s letters (“I was engaged in my poetical labours…”) while finding a Wordsworth connection to a tattooed body unearthed in a peat bog. Soon Jane is speculating that the tattoos are redolent of the South Seas, that Fletcher Christian of the Bounty was distantly related to Wordsworth, and that Captain Bligh may have caused the mutiny by sodomizing members of his crew. This is a modern-sounding story after all.
The eagerness of an established writer like Ms. McDermid, whose usual specialty is contemporary crime tales, to experiment with this genre is one measure of its wild popularity. Another is an oddity called “The Master Copy,” credited to two writers named Osterman, one of whom is a “former electrical specialist.” Already published in 2004 and postulating about the cloning of Jesus from a DNA sample, this book comes from a vanity press called Xlibris. Xlibris will print as few as 10 copies of a client’s book and has fielded 61 complaints from the Better Business Bureau in the past three years. Yet the Ostermans crank out their story and wishfully announce: “ ‘Remastered: The Master Copy II’ is a work in progress. It will become available in time.”
There’s a world of difference between this and a major production like “The Machiavelli Covenant,” a literate if derivative secret-chaser by Allan Folsom. Mr. Folsom knows that Niccolo Machiavelli’s strategizing did not stop short of bloodshed. More important, he knows that it helps to have someone like “the beautiful but enigmatic French photojournalist Demi Picard” along for the chase and to have someone discover that Schlippenbachii, Mucronulatum and Flammeum are names of azaleas, names that are well used in code.
Mr. Folsom also sends the president of the United States on the run from conspirators. Because the president was a Rhodes Scholar, he can identify Aldebaran, a star in the constellation Taurus, as “the Eye of God.”
Which brings us back to Greg Taylor’s wishful guide to the would-be next work of Mr. Brown. Mr. Taylor speculates on both the Eye of Providence on the Great Seal of the United States and the Masonic Apron of George Washington, among many other mysterious things. But the main challenge for “The Solomon Key” will not be that of making ingenious use of symbology. It will be the challenge of sounding more like Dan Brown than Dan Brown’s imitators do. (http://www.nytimes.com)