By Richard Chin • Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Lately, Dan Brown has been writing his thriller novels under the forbidding eye of Zeus, the king of gods. Which is a bit ironic, given that Brown vaulted to fame, success and bestseller lists by being a bit of an iconoclast, employing faith-shaking premises challenging ideas about religion and God as plot devices.

His first blockbuster, “The Da Vinci Code,” was a puzzle-filled thriller that introduced readers to the notion that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married with children.

His latest page-turner, “Origin,” goes even further, playing with the idea that science could ultimately triumph over religion by essentially proving the nonexistence of God.

It’s true that the god that watches over Brown as he writes is actually a cat, a massive orange and white tabby that adopted Brown after it wandered over from the neighbor’s house near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, five years ago and never left.

But ancient Egyptians once revered cats as demigods, and since then, cats like Zeus have never let Brown and the rest of us forget it. “He’s very big. Very, very territorial. Does not like it when I leave. When my suitcase comes out, he actually gets quite upset,” Brown said of Zeus. “He sits on my desk for eight hours a day when I’m writing.”

That’s why Zeus has been a muse of sorts for Brown’s latest book, “Origin.” It’s the fifth thriller to star Robert Langdon, the tweedy but dashing Harvard professor of “symbology and religious iconology,” who was played by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptations.

The book kicks off with Langdon present at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, when tech billionaire Edmond Kirsch prepares to announce a scientific breakthrough that will answer man’s “universal mysteries”: Where do we come from and where are we going?

In Brown’s telling, Kirsch’s answer threatens to render all religions into myths as obsolete as Zeus. But the billionaire is assassinated before he can reveal what he’s found.

Before you can say secret conspiracy, Langdon is racing around Spain in the company of the “spectacularly beautiful” Ambra Vidal, who also happens to be the museum director and the fiancée to the next king of Spain.

Langdon and Vidal decide they must find the 47-character password that will unlock Kirsch’s discovery while trying to stay out of the clutches of the shadowy killers trying to keep it secret.

Happily, they have the best ally a thriller hero could have: an artificially intelligent digital helper named Winston, a “Siri on steroids” capable of booking escapes on private jets without security screening.

A winning formula

With a first U.S. printing of 2 million copies, “Origin” (Doubleday, $30) combines all the elements of the Dan Brown formula that has sold more than 200 million books and has been translated into 56 languages: codes, puzzles, treasure hunts, secretive organizations and didactic explanations of obscure facts.

The Brown formula also means plots that are contained in a 24-hour period, with short chapters (105 spread over 461 pages in “Origin”), typically ending in cliffhangers.

But Brown also aspires to write “the thriller as academic lecture.”

So in between the places where the characters’ hearts pound (or their pulses quicken or their adrenaline surges), Brown pauses to drop in explanations of art, architecture, history and science that he said he spent a year reading up on before he started writing.

As in some of his earlier books, Brown uses a conservative Catholic sect as a plot element in “Origin.” This time it’s something called the Palmarian Church, headed by an “antipope.”

His books, or the movies based on his books, have been criticized by some for being anti-Catholic.

Brown, 53, describes himself as agnostic, but not anti-religious.

“My mother was very, very religious. She was the church organist. I sang in the choir,” he said. As a child, Brown said, “I believed in the Bible. I believed in Adam and Eve.”

But his father, a math teacher who created treasure hunts for his kids and introduced Brown to a passion for secret codes, was an agnostic.

“So I had a foot in each world growing up,” he said.

Brown learned about evolution when he was about 9 years old, and when he asked his Episcopalian priest about it, “the priest told me, ‘Nice boys don’t ask that question.’”

“And I moved into the realm of science. I moved away from religion,” he said. “At some point, I realized I can’t really embrace them both, and I started on this journey of writing these books and trying to figure out where the truth lies.”

Brown said technology, like religion, can be used for both good and evil. But he objects when religion stands in the way of scientific progress or “is used as an excuse to have immunity from rational scrutiny.”

Brown’s mother died earlier this year of leukemia, and his latest book is dedicated to her memory. Brown said her life was extended because of an experimental drug program based on genetic medicine.

“My mom had 10 years of life, and I had 10 years with her, because of these technologies, and I think it’s important we remember, and the church remembers, that religion does not have the market cornered on morality,” he said.

The Barry Manilow of books

Brown’s path to success wasn’t a straight one. Before he took up writing, he hoped to be a singer-songwriter, the next Barry Manilow or Billy Joel.

When his music career failed to take off, he turned to writing, first a humor book, “187 Men to Avoid.”

Then, inspired by reading a Sidney Sheldon novel, he wrote a techno-thriller, “Digital Fortress.” His first Robert Langdon novel, “Angels & Demons,” and another techno-thriller, “Deception Point,” came next. He had to do his own publicity for those first books, and he sold books out of his car as he struggled to find readers.

“I was seriously considering not writing again,” he wrote of that time, describing his career in a witness statement in a lawsuit against his publisher.

Instead, he changed his agent and got a new publisher, Doubleday, which heavily promoted his next novel, “The Da Vinci Code.”

The runaway success of that book in 2003 led Time magazine to put Brown on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2005, crediting him with “nothing less than keeping the publishing industry afloat.”

This September Forbes said Brown was the fourth-highest-paid author in the world, pulling in an estimated $20 million in the past year.

But success has made him a target. Two lawsuits, both thrown out by the courts, accused him of plagiarism. And critics regularly bash Brown’s prose.

Fellow mega-seller Stephen King (fifth on the Forbes author list) once lumped Dan Brown novels with “Jokes for the John” as the “mental equivalent of Kraft macaroni and cheese.” Salman Rushdie described “The Da Vinci Code” as “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”

In the Washington Post, reviewer Ron Charles said “Origin” was “so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff.”

Asked whether reviews like that hurt or if he cries all the way to the bank, Brown said, “Kind of both.

“I just write the novel that I want to read, and I just hope other people want to read it,” he said.

Brown said he has ideas for several more books involving his hero Langdon, who he describes as “really the person I wish I could be.”

Brown said Langdon is braver and smarter than he is, but there’s one way they are alike: Langdon shares Brown’s claustrophobia, thanks to an experience Brown had of nearly falling into a well.

“That was something that almost happened to me as a child in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and it has stayed with me, and I just made it the Achilles’ heel of this character,” he said.

Future novels may have a different hero.

“I’ve got an idea for a novel about race relations in the 1960s. I’ve got ideas for techno-thrillers, government conspiracy theories, all sorts of things, “ Brown said.

But first he has to get back from his international book tour for “Origins” and home to his desk, where he starts his writing day at 4 a.m., his computer reminding him to take hourly breaks to do some pushups or situps, sip some butter-laced “bulletproof coffee” and look out the window at the forests near his home.

Zeus will be watching.

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