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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Dan Browned if you do, Dan Browned if you don't

Only a few days to go now until September 15th. Mark it in your diaries. Capital letters. Red ink. Now circle it - once, twice. Then underline it. Done.

Why the fuss? No it's not to commemorate the feast day of Our lady of Sorrows. Or to remember the date of the Battle of Signal Hill (1762), Darwin first reaching the Galapagos Islands (1835), the passing of the Nuremberg Laws (1935) or Vanuatu becoming a member of the UN (1981). Neither is it to celebrate the birth of Marco Polo (1254), Agatha Christie (1890), Fay Wray (1907) or Princess Letizia of Spain (1972 - vintage year that!). Nor indeed to mark the death of André Le Nôtre (1700), Jumbo (PT Barnum's elephant - 1885), Willy Messershmitt (1978) and Johnny Ramone (2004).

It is, of course, to celebrate that only a month now stands between you and the publication of The Geneva Deception on October 15th. Oh, and apparently some chap called Dan Brown is publishing his new book that day too. It's called The Lost Symbol. Oh you've heard of it too?

I'm lucky, I've got a month's breathing room until TGD comes online. Imagine if you were the hapless PR dolly handed the task of publicising another book in the same week. Or even month. It would be like trying to hold back a steamroller with a spoon. In New York, publishers have been running scared, even changing Stephen King's (the Stephen King for Christ's sake!) release date to avoid being trampled underfoot. And who can blame them? The Da Vinci Code spent 68 weeks at No 1 in The Sunday Times bestseller lists, 120 in the Top Ten, and was crowned the UK’s biggest-selling paperback novel ever (Guess who also wrote the books at 2, 3 and 4).

There are apparently 81 million copies in print. 81 million. Just to put that in context, Ian Fleming, who published the first of his twelve Bond novels in 1953, has sold ~100 million books over the last 56 years. DB has got 80% of the way there off one book in 6. Or put it another way, if you were to lay all the books DB has sold end-to-end, it wouldn't reach half-way to how smug his agent must be feeling right now.

Not that I'm complaining. I've been the grateful recipient of various crumbs that have fallen from DB's table over the years, including a Sainsbury's "If you liked The Da Vinci Code you'll love ..." type offer a few years ago and the current promotion that Border's are running now whereby if you order The Lost Symbol, you get a copy of The Double Eagle for (take a deep breath, count to ten) free when you collect it. In fact this is the actual in-store ad.

How does it feel to watch punters hand over £18.99 for DB's latest oeuvre and then receive my book for the princely sum of the square root of f***-all? Honestly? Mixed emotions. On the one hand it's a bit like watching someone run a key down the side of the car you worked three different weekend jobs to pay for. On the other hand, anything that gets my book into people's hands, shows them what I can do, and hopefully gets them to buy the others, is a very good thing indeed. And unlike Simon Kernick, I haven't had to deal with the fallout of changing my cover!

Who knows, I may even compare rather favourably, although in polite company even being mentioned in the same breath as Dan Brown appears to be the literary equivalent of coughing during the Black Death. Has anyone in history sold so many books, and yet found so few people willing to admit they read and enjoyed it, I wonder? It's like trying to get someone in the 1950s admit to having voted for the NSDAP in 1933. He's a walking cream cake - a guilty pleasure you will only admit to yourself or snatch a bite of when no-one is looking.

Well I'm happy to stand up and be counted - I am Spartacus, as they say. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. There I've said it now. On reflection it's perhaps not the most well written book in the world, it's true. And some of the characters are a little ... flat. But at the time all I noticed was the gentle fan of the pages as I sped through it, desperate to get to the end, totally hooked. Isn't that the essence of a good thriller? Rather that, than some worthy Booker winner where it takes 350 pages for someone to get up, get dressed, smoke ten Gauloises, argue with their mistress, reflect on the futility of life and then go back to bed. It certainly didn't and hasn't warranted the mauling it has received, nor has DB himself, by all accounts a very nice man, deserved the abuse directed his way. But then that has been less about the book and more to do with some faceless intellectual elite, horrified by anything so vulgar as a popular book, adopting it as some sort of surrogate barometer for intelligence and cultural sophistication. Not slagging off the DVC basically marks you out as riding the short bus. All I know is that those 81 million copies didn't walk off the shelves themselves and yet that seems to be brushed over as some sort of social aberration or mass hysteria, like all those people crying when Lady Di died. The arrogance of the literary world remains breathtaking. Damn you, you faceless intellectual elite.

The bigger mystery for me is why (beyond Qarper's ceasless energy - thanks guys) I qualify for these Dan Brown promotions and offers in the first place. Is it really true that "If you like Dan Brown you'll love James Twining? If I can get a fraction of his sales I certainly hope so, but beyond both of us writing thrillers, I've never been convinced my books are that similar to his. That said some people have made the comparison in the past and I have to admit that Harper Collins invited it to a certain extent by adopting a very similar colour scheme to the DVC for The Double Eagle.

If there are similarities, they come because we share an interest in history and in spinning a story around some interesting historical event or fact, but then Robert Harris does much the same in Archangel. We both make reference to art and art works, but then so does Dashiel Hammet in The Maltese Falcon. We both sprinkle historical facts into our writing, but then so does Thomas Harris in Hannibal. Okay, so the third book was about the Mona Lisa, but not in a secret society / hidden code / all Catholics are evil sort of a way but in a bullet-strewn / heist sort of way. Are certain topics now judged off-limits because Dan Brown has written about them?

The truth is, I don't care who people compare my books to. The important thing is that they read them and then they can make their own minds up. If that happens to be as a result of me being caught up in the Dan Brown literary tsunami, God bless him, then so be it.

The only comparison I care about is that I seem to remember that the DVC was Dan Brown's fourth book (having published three books previously with only limited success), as The Geneva Deception is now mine. Wouldn't it be nice if ...