One of the surprises was that 80 million people would get past an opening paragraph that began: "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the 76-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas."
Critics dumped the requisite helpings of odium on Dan's prose, but the real surprise was that a 480-page novel largely fashioned from early Catholic obscurantism would cause such turmoil within the Church.
This time, the Vatican is ready.
Brown's long-awaited follow-up, The Lost Symbol, is to be released in September.
Breaking the news last week, the 44-year-old author took care to give little away, but – as was perhaps to be expected with a book seen by the embattled publishing industry as its own global stimulus programme – details of the plot have leaked.
The novel is known to dwell on the religious roots of Freemasonry, and to once again feature Robert Langdon, the hero of The Da Vinci Code. It is Langdon who says things like: "I've got to get to a library… fast!"
A tweed-favouring professor of symbology at Harvard University, he has an eidetic memory that allows him to digest ancient squiggles by the wall-load, and a fearless streak of iconoclasm which convinces him that the Catholic Church has been engaged in "the biggest cover-up of all time".
Even before last week's announcement, the Vatican was preparing extensive anti-Brown contingency measures. Angels and Demons, the Ron Howard-directed film version of an earlier Brown novel, hits the big screen next month.
It tells of a plot by the Illuminati, a secular secret society, supposedly defunct since the 18th century, to blow up the Holy See using anti-matter stolen from the CERN high-energy physics centre in Switzerland.
Gianni Gennari, a prominent theologian and columnist with the Vatican newspaper Avvenire, has called upon Catholics to boycott the movie, depicting it as part of a conspiracy to insult and ridicule the Church.
The film-makers were also refused permission to use locations controlled by the Diocese of Rome. Father Marco Fibbi, a spokesman for the Church says: "Normally, we would read the script, but in this case the name 'Dan Brown' was enough."
All of which is likely to be much appreciated by Dan. For years, he was a nobody; a mild-mannered, piano-playing schoolteacher's son from the granite hills of New Hampshire, who wanted to become a pop singer, preferably in the Barry Manilow mould. He moved to Los Angeles and in the early 1990s released a debut CD that featured 976-LOVE, a ballad about phone sex, which was not the hit he had hoped for.
"The world isn't ready for a pale, balding geek shaking his booty on MTV," he admitted.
Dispirited, he found consolation in the shape of Blythe Newton Brown, an attractive blonde music industry executive, 12 years his senior, who took him under her wing – or, as many have subsequently come to see it, her thumb. From the time of their first meeting, his prospects began to improve.
Blythe became his manager, and while in public she would talk him up as the "new Billy Joel", "the new Prince" or "the new Paul Simon", she had the sense to see that such actual talents as he had might lie elsewhere.
As a boy, Dan had been obsessed with puzzles, riddles and codes. His parents would lay treasure trails around the house for their three children, and he would always be the first to solve them. Magic tricks and sleight of hand fascinated him.
One day he told Blythe about an art lecture he had attended as a post-graduate in Spain. The subject had been Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century mural of the Last Supper, and it seemed that there were disguised references, messages, possibly clues in the painting that had continued to intrigue him.
Twenty years later, his curiosity would shape the plot of The Da Vinci Code.
It didn't take Blythe long to realise that Dan, whom she married in 1995, wasn't going to make it even as the new Tiny Tim, and when he expressed an interest in writing, she encouraged him to indulge his love of intricate detail. A handful of books followed, none particularly successful.
Salman Rushdie has called The Da Vinci Code "a book so bad that it makes bad books look good", while the American grammarian Mark Lieberman has labelled Brown "one of the worst prose stylists in the history of literature".
One leading critic wrote: "There has been much debate over Dan Brown's novel, but no question has been more contentious than this: 'If a person of sound mind begins reading it at 10 o'clock, at what time will he or she realise that it is unmitigated junk?' "
Among novelists who take a modest pride in their writing, there is lingering disbelief and resentment that Brown's clunking dialogue and household-appliance-manual narratives should have brought him such fame and riches.
Yet the success didn't come easily. Once the Browns – now effectively operating as a team – settled on the outline of The Da Vinci Code, the research operation began. They spent thousands of hours poring over books and documents in Rome, Paris and Washington. Tentatively at first, and then with more confidence, they constructed a quasi-factual, almost plausible framework for a work of outrageous fiction.
The discipline extended into the writing regime, which Dan has described as "tough and painful." He starts work each day at 4am. "Otherwise I feel like I'm missing my most productive hours. I keep an hourglass on my desk and every hour I stop to do push-ups, sit-ups and stretches."
If this doesn't sound much like the gin-guzzling, feud-settling writerly life of, say, Hemingway and Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Dan is unlikely to mind. His fortune is now estimated at more than $200 million dollars, and he and Blythe – they have no children – live on a large, guarded estate in his native New Hampshire. The forthcoming book, with an advance print order approaching five million copies, will add handsomely to his fortune.
The money hasn't greatly changed him. Jason Kaufman, his friend and editor, says: "He is the same person he was before… he is remarkably level-headed about his life."
But it isn't the same life. Brown probably thought music was a tough business until he ran into theology.
At public appearances he has been abused by militant Catholics, who accuse him of blasphemy and the exploitation of their faith.
The impression lingers everywhere that his success – however extravagant – will not endure, and that The Da Vinci Code will prove to be one of those flukes of pop-cultural preference that has no meaning or basis.
The countdown to The Lost Symbol has begun, and this time it isn't just the critics who are ready and waiting for Dan Brown, but the Vatican, too.
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