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It’s another ‘Da Vinci Code’ season

Similar books to flood shelves in 2006
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the early months of 2006, expect a few novels with some very familiar story lines.

“Labyrinth,” by Kate Mosse, features a rival sect to the Catholic church and a search for the Holy Grail. In “The Templar Legacy,” a thriller by Steve Berry, a former government agent attempts to unravel a mystery about an order of knights whose power rivaled the Pope’s. Matilde Asensi’s “The Last Cato” features the head of the Vatican’s secret archive and his efforts to solve a murder with clues dating back to biblical times.

“It’s hard not to have ‘The Da Vinci Code’ on our minds, as it has become the cultural phenomenon of our time,” says Rene Alegria, publisher of Rayo, a Hispanic imprint of HarperCollins that is releasing the English translation of “The Last Cato.”

Nearly three years after it was first published, “The Da Vinci Code” has more than 25 million copies in print worldwide, inspired dozens of parodies and critiques and increased interest in religious thrillers, art history, Gnostic texts and speculations about the life of Jesus.

With “The Da Vinci Code” movie, starring Tom Hanks as symbologist Robert Langdon, due out in the spring or early summer, publishers and booksellers expect yet another surge for the Dan Brown novel and for books like it.

“This is the hottest trend out there,” says Barnes & Noble fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley. “I think a large part of the ‘Da Vinci Code’ audience will go for these new books.”

Publishers are counting on big sales. Steve Berry, whose Web site includes a blurb from Brown (“writes with the self-assured style of a veteran”) is getting a 200,000 print run for his new book. “Labyrinth,” already a best seller in Europe, will get a first printing of 100,000. “The Last Cato,” a huge success when published in Spain, will also have a 100,000 printing.

Alegria and other publishers acknowledge that “The Da Vinci Code” has had an impact on the marketplace, but insist that their books hold up on their own.

Javier Sierra’s “Secret Supper,” coming out from Atria with a first printing of 350,000, “combines mystery, intrigue and death in a riveting thriller that reveals the unknown secrets behind Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper,”’ according to a statement on Sierra’s Web site.

Still, we are told, “You have never read a book like this before.”

“While the best-selling novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ describes in only three pages the mysteries of ’The Last Supper,’ Sierra’s book will give you an inside picture of one of the greatest geniuses of all times.”

Dutton Books is releasing “The Last Templar,” written by Raymond Khoury and centering on a theft during a “Treasures of the Vatican” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with one stolen piece dating back to the Crusades. Dutton, a division of Penguin Group USA, is giving the book a “substantial first printing,” according to senior editor Mitch Hoffman.

Defining a new marketHoffman says he has received more proposals invoking “The Da Vinci Code” — averaging at least one a week — than the total number of books he releases in a given year. But “The Last Templar” stood out. He needed just a weekend to finish the novel, and, with a subtle wink, convinced his colleagues that the book was worth publishing.

“I didn’t have to mention ‘The Da Vinci Code,”’ he says. “I just said that ‘we want people to know that if what they’re looking for is a big, very fun, very smart thriller with these great historical/religious elements ...”’

Rene Alegria of Rayo notes that “The Last Cato” and other upcoming releases may capitalize on “The Da Vinci Code” but were actually conceived earlier. Dutton’s Mitch Hoffman agrees that thrillers about art and secret codes were around well before Brown’s book and says “The Da Vinci Code” has not invented a new kind of book, but defined a new market.

“It’s like legal thrillers after John Grisham and Scott Turow,” he says. “There were always books with lawyers running around before it solidified into a category, when all manners of books were called ‘legal thrillers.’ I do feel we may be seeing a similar thing in the wake of ‘The Da Vinci Code.”’

But Mark Tavani, an editor at Ballantine Books, which will publish Steve Berry’s novel, thinks the genre will soon peak. He believes that booksellers will eventually become more selective and that comparing something to “The Da Vinci Code” won’t be enough.

“Only the ones that are great will continue to sell,” he says. “But people will still be interested in fact-filled fiction. I think people want to learn things from their fiction books and will continue to look for that. So the next big thing in fiction will again be fact based, but different from ‘The Da Vinci Code.”’