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Brown is most known for being the author of the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, which sparked controversy because of its representations of the history of the Catholic Church. He combines intricate, fast-paced plot ting with extensively-researched conspiracy theories to produce extremely popular mystery-thriller novels.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Influential Upbringing
Brown was born June 22, 1964, in Exeter, New Hampshire into an environment filled with the academic and the artistic: his mother was a musician, as Brown himself would later be, and his father was a math professor, foreshadowing Brown’s own later interest in number puzzles and codes. Brown’s interest in secret societies, an important component of his work, stems from his New England childhood, where he was surrounded by the secret societies of ivy League schools and the elite private clubs and lodges, such as the Masonic Lodge. Cracking codes, which is central to Brown’s storylines, began at an early age. His parents would leave clues for the children to guide them on treasure hunts as a stimulating form of entertainment.
Brown attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a private school located in his hometown. The environment at Exeter was strongly Christian, and Brown sang in the church choir, went to Sunday school, and attended church summer camp, all of which sparked an interest in religious history that would later influence his choice of subject matter for his novels. He graduated with a B.A. from Amherst College in 1986; during his junior year, he studied art history at the University of Seville in Spain. it was there that he first began studying the works of Leonardo da Vinci, an interest that would serve him in his later writing, particularly in the best-selling The Da Vinci Code.
From Music to Writing
Before turning to writing, Brown attempted a musical career. He self-produced an album for children entitled Synth Animals and an adult CD entitled Perspective. He then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, where he taught classes at Beverly Hills Preparatory School to support himself. He also met Blythe Newlon, the National Academy of Songwriters’ Director of Artistic Development. In 1993, Brown released the self-titled CD Dan Brown, but soon afterwards he moved back to New Hampshire to begin teaching English at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy. Newlon went with him, and they were married four years later, in 1997. The previous year, Brown had quit teaching to pursue writing full-time.
It was during his time at Exeter that Brown got the idea for his first novel, Digital Fortress (1998). One of his students had been tracked down and briefly detained by the U.S. Secret Service agency, who somehow knew that the teenager had made hostile political comments via e mail to a friend. This incident inspired Brown to further research government computer intelligence, which became the subject of Digital Fortress. This was soon followed by Angels & Demons (2000), Deception Point (2001), and The Da Vinci Code (2003), which spent months at the top of best-seller lists. Following the success of The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s previous books also became best-sellers.
Works in Literary Context
Brown is one of a growing number of best-selling mystery-thriller novelists, but his subject matter and approach set him apart from others. He deals primarily with high-level conspiracies and religious history, and his plots are driven by deciphering symbols, cracking codes, and following leads that come from secret information. In other ways, his writing is typical of best-selling thrillers, with undeveloped characters, action-packed chase scenes, and relatively unsophisticated dialogue.
Doing His Research
The hallmark of Brown’s writing is the use of science and religion within the context of the action-oriented thriller novel. Brown researches his works thoroughly and heavily sprinkles his novels with history and other pertinent background information. As Nancy Pearl noted about Angels & Demons, Brown’s novel is ”both literate and extremely well researched, mixing physics with religion.” This mixture has drawn praise from various reviewers and brought Brown a wider audience than is often found in his genre. As Andy Plonka noted of Angels & Demons, ”The thriller devotees will be pleased, the information junkies content, the intricate puzzle enthusiasts satisfied, and the historical buffs appeased with a bit of church history and art history to contain their appetites.” His other novels have been given similar praise. Jeff Zaleski wrote about Deception Pass that Brown has done his research, folding in sophisticated scientific and military details that make his plot far more fulfilling than the norm.”
Brown’s novels all prominently feature secret societies, either ancient or modern. In both Digital Fortress and Deception Point, highly secretive government agencies play a central role in both keeping and uncovering hidden information. Brown draws on religious history and conspiracies within Christianity for his other two novels. In Angels & Demons, the main character is drawn into an ancient struggle between a secret society and the Catholic Church, while The Da Vinci Code presents a controversial treatment of a secret Catholic society dedicated to suppressing certain facts about Jesus’s life. These secret societies are driving forces in Brown’s plots, not mere thriller window-dressing.
Works in Critical Context
Brown has been widely praised for his ability to write novels with intricate plots that are fast-paced, suspenseful and entertaining, right up to their conclusions. Some reviewers fault Brown for relying on implausible premises and over-the-top conspiracies, but many find the narrative circumstances of his novels compelling and believable. Other critics have claimed that Brown’s writing skills are lacking, that his characters are one-dimensional and his dialogue excruciating, but popular opinion suggests that for most readers, his books are difficult to put down.
Critical Reception of Digital Fortress
Brown’s first novel, Digital Fortress (1998), was well received, and critics were pleased to note the skill and inventiveness of this new entry into the thriller genre. Sybil Steinberg of Publisher’s Weekly called Digital Fortress an ”inventive debut thriller.” Reviewers noted elements that would be echoed by others writing about Brown’s later books, particularly his ability to keep readers fascinated right up to the end. Gilbert Taylor wrote that Brown’s skill at hiding his characters’ deceits ”will rivet cyber-minded readers.” Steinberg noted that ”Brown’s tale is laced with twists and shocks that keep the reader wired right up to the last minute.”
The Da Vinci Code: Praise and Controversy
Although Brown’s first three novels were well received and sold well, it was not until The Da Vinci Code that Brown achieved the popularity and critical attention that he is now known for. As with his other novels, reviewers described The Da Vinci Code as a ”brainy” thriller, and they were impressed with Brown’s ability to combine factual research with compelling intrigue and an entertaining storyline. One critic described The Da Vinci Code as ”an ingenious mixture of paranoid thriller, art history lesson, chase story, religious symbology lecture and anti clerical screed.” Annie C. Bond noted that
—–Brown demonstrates not only knowledge of art, art history, and architecture but also a talent at weaving it all together into such an intricate tapestry that it becomes difficult to determine what is his imagination at work and what is actually a mini-lesson in history.
The Da Vinci Code was immediately surrounded by controversy, particularly because of Brown’s claims about the accuracy of the book’s art history and its representations of early Christian history. Critics hotly debated these claims, and while some commented on Brown’s impressive research, others noted the implausible historical claims, factual inaccuracies, and distorted representations of the Catholic Church. Maurice Timothy Reidy described The Da Vinci Code as ”an incredibly simplistic reading of both history and theology.” Cynthia Grenier asserted that The Da Vinci Code shows ”disregard for historical accuracy and a marked hostility to the Catholic Church.” However, even hostile reviewers did agree that the book was highly entertaining. As Patrick McCormick, reviewing The Da Vinci Code in The U.S. Catholic, noted, ”Brown’s novel is a vastly entertaining read that mixes the thrill of a high-speed chase with the magical pleasures of a quest through an enchanted forest of art, literature, and history.”
- Eder, Doris L. ”The Formula: The Novels of Dan Brown.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2005.
- Abbott, Charlotte. ”Code Word: Breakout.” Publishers Weekly (January 27, 2003).
- Ayers, Jeff. ”Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code.” Library Journal (Februrary 1, 2003).
- Bond, Annie C. ”Review of The Da Vinci Code, by Dan
- ” Phi Kappa Phi Forum (Fall 2003): 42-43.
- ”Decoding The Da Vinci Code.” Newsweek (December 8,2003).
- Grenier, Cynthia. ”Novel Gods.” Weekly Standard (September 22, 2003): 32-34.
- Heydron, Jo Ann. ”Literary Art.” Sojourners (July-August 2003).
- Lawson, Mark. ”Signs for the Times.” Guardian (July 26, 2003).
- Lazarus, David. ”Da Vinci Code a Heart-Racing Thriller.” San Francisco Chronicle (April 6, 2003).
- McCormick, Patrick. “The Da Vinci Code.” U.S. Catholic (November 2003).
- Pearl, Nancy. ”Cheap Thrills: Novels of Suspense.” Library Journal. (November 15, 2000).
- Reidy, Maurice. ”Breaking the Code.” Commonweal (September 12, 2003): 46.
- ”Review of The Da Vinci Code.” Publishers Weekly (February 3, 2003).
- Sennett, Frank. “The Da Vinci Code.” Booklist (March 1,2003).
- Steinberg, Sybil. ”Review of Digital Fortress. Publishers Weekly (December 22, 1997).
- Taylor, Gilbert. ”Review of Digital Fortress. Booklist (January 1, 1998): 780.
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