Altar of Bones: A literary sensation – but who dunnit?

As the books world mulls over the real identity of an acclaimed new author, Arifa Akbar wonders what drives writers to hide behind a nom de plume

The publication of a crime thriller whose plot rests on a global conspiracy is fast inspiring its own, real-life literary conspiracy. Readers and reviewers of Altar of Bones are speculating on the real identity of the anonymous writer hiding behind the pseudonym Philip Carter.

The book has been described as a "global thriller that spans generations and unearths the secret behind one of the biggest conspiracies of all time", after Zoe Dmitroff discovers that she is the last in a line of women who have been entrusted with a secret so great that many have died preserving it. Propelled into a dangerous quest that takes her from San Francisco to Budapest, Paris and Siberia, and from car chases to assassination attempts, she teams up with an ex-Special Operations soldier, Ry O'Malley, and they accumulate a colourful array of enemies, from the Russian mob to high-ranking officials on Capitol Hill.

The book's American rights sold for seven figures in a heated auction, and it is the first in a two-book deal. Its main UK publication in paperback has just occurred, but it hit the New York Times and Australian bestseller list on its low-key hardback publication last year. It has, since then, been translated into 12 languages and sold in 14 countries.

America's Booklist magazine said comparisons with Steve Barry, Dan Brown and James Rollins were "not unmerited", describing it as a "looping, roller-coaster of a reading experience".

The intrigue will surely have given an extra frisson of excitement to conspiracy enthusiasts. One reviewer on Amazon wrote: "Philip Carter is the admitted pseudonym for an internationally renowned author. I spent most of the novel trying to figure out who it was, but the style was different than many of the historical fiction writers working today."

No more clues have been given as to its authorship. Even the editorial director at Simon & Schuster, who has been in email contact with Carter, claims not to be in on the secret. All we know is that he or she has written before, under another name, and sold a lot of books. There is no other hint to help us narrow down contenders, although this has not stopped a list of possible authors emerging on internet posts and reviews, with Brown, Robert Ludlum and Harlan Coben among them. Some are questioning the gender – could it be a woman, writing in a crime and espionage genre largely commanded by male writers?

So who is the author, and why would he or she want to take cover in this day and age? What reason could there be for Western authors to hide their faces in a world where the printed word is not damned as sedition or samizdat? And does a nom de plume ever keep a lid on a writer's true identity, or does it, in fact, set off a guessing game that becomes its own brilliant marketing campaign?

We only need to think back to the sniffer-dog searches around Primary Colors, the anonymous roman à clef of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, or the equally unrelenting race to uncover the true identity of the unnamed call girl, Belle de Jour, as instances in which the quest to "out" the author has been so large and loud that anonymity has been short-lived indeed.

Carter returns us to the conundrum of contemporary literary anonymity; is it an authentic desire, a dissembling marketing trick, or a bit of both? In Carter's case, the author is not exactly taking deep cover – his website describes him as an "anonymous bestselling international author". This handily points out past credentials and provides a tantalising clue to readers. In 19th-century terms, it would be like Charlotte Brontë's publisher describing the real identity behind Currer Bell as "a Northern writer whose gender might surprise you" on the publication of Jane Eyre.

Very few authors in our celebrity-seduced society strive for true literary anonymity, a concept formulated in medieval times when authors did not deign to put their names to their creations, believing that they were merely channelling God's grace in their creative endeavour.

God is a long forgotten entity now as far as publishing is concerned – few writers would eschew the glories of name recognition, and we as readers love to give a face to our literary heroes. There have been rare instances in which writers have succeeded in hiding themselves effectively, and perhaps these prove that if a writer is determined enough, he or she will never be found out. The publication of Story of O, a 1954 erotic novel featuring sado-masochism, is one such example. Anne Desclos, a French publisher, journalist and novelist, wrote the book under the name Pauline Réage. She was never outed, despite the intrigue at the time of publication, and she only disclosed her real identity 40 years later.

But she is an exception. In reality, there are a host of other reasons to adopt a pseudonym beyond the desire for anonymity per se. Some writers create an alter-ego in order to separate their brands: Iain Banks writes literary fiction, while under his other pen-name, Iain M Banks, he writes sci-fi; C Day-Lewis, the former poet laureate, kept his crime-mystery writing persona separate under the name of Nicholas Blake; and last year's Man Booker winner, Julian Barnes, has written crime novels under the name Dan Kavanagh.

None of this suggests a genuine desire for anonymity. The publisher of Sam Bourne's new book, Pantheon, due out in February, makes it clear that the bestselling pseudonymous author is the journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Freedland. It is merely as if the authorial voice has been split in two, for the purposes of generic clarity.

Even when an initial intention for anonymity is there, very few successfully disguised works stay that way, perhaps because the writer lets the secret seep out slowly. The Brontë sisters are often cited as archetypal pseudonymous authors, but even they failed to achieve anonymity for long. Adopting a pen-name at a time when it was rare and indecent for women to be writing and publishing novels, Charlotte Brontë's cover was blown not in one single instance, but in increments, until it was virtually an open secret among London's critics.

Brontë's cover began slipping when she started spending time in London, meeting other writers of the day. William Makepeace Thackeray was, for one, a fan of her work, and, when she attended one of his lectures, she found herself loudly and publicly introduced to Thackeray's mother as "Jane Eyre". She was said to have been doubly disgruntled when he, after having dinner with her, burst into the Garrick Club and boomed, "I've just had dinner with Jane Eyre".

She, like her sisters, was trying to maintain her male pseudonym, if not to conceal an already revealed identity then at least to control it, and not have it controlled by a circle of friends and reviewers. Yet, while this tiny circle may have been in on her secret, the larger reading public was still unknowing. George Eliot's cover was similarly blown by the critics, though the illusion remained among ordinary readers outside of London's chattering classes.

These cases teach us that when a book achieves a level of success, we want to know and celebrate its author. Yet an interesting line of inquiry is whether the true author's identity changes a reader's experience of the book.

Some would insist that it does. We know from past studies that while the majority of readers in Britain are women, male readers tend to prefer buying novels written by men, particularly in the crime, espionage and thriller genres. The Virago publisher Lennie Goodings has talked about "gendered buying" in the past, while the novelist and critic Lisa Appignanesi has similarly talked about gendered reading. Perhaps that is why female authors of some genres – children's writing, crime and detective fiction – choose to initialise their first names; P D James and J K Rowling are just two examples.

Maxine Hitchcock, editorial director of fiction at Simon & Schuster, who is overseeing the publication of Carter's book in Britain, says the reputation of a starry writer can all too easily overshadow their story. A pseudonym can release an author from the burden of their reputations, their past, as well as the burdens of gender, age and race.

"People might say, 'gosh, is this cynical on the part of the publisher?' But what I like is letting the story talk. It's quite refreshing in this age to focus on what is written, rather than on the personality of the writer.

"What's interesting is the speculation about gender. There's a feeling that men don't write good sex scenes, and that women don't write good car chases. This plays with that. Also, it can be very hard to change direction as a writer. You have a following and certain expectations to meet. This is an interesting way to get around that," she says.

Of course, there are also those established authors who write under a pen-name almost as a way to test their industry's standards, and even their own brilliance. Romain Gary won the French literature prize the Prix Goncourt twice – once under his own name, and once under the pseudonym Émile Ajar (the prize is awarded only once to an author).

By contrast, Doris Lessing attempted to detach from her writerly fame – and prove how hard it was for unknown writers to be published – by sending out two novel manuscripts to her publisher under a fake name. They were rejected. When they were finally published, under the pen-name Jane Somers, it was with little fanfare and few sales. Perhaps the result would have been different if she had dropped a marketable clue as to her identity, in the manner of Philip Carter, to reveal that the books were by an "anonymous internationally renowned novelist and Nobel prize contender".

'Altar of Bones' by Philip Carter is published by Simon & Schuster (£6.99). Order for £6.64 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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