After Da Vinci, readers rush to unravel the secrets of Shakespeare

Ever since Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, blending the world of Renaissance art with a fast-paced murder mystery, countless authors have attempted to replicate his success, and failed.

So when a first-time author added her work to the mountain of historical thrillers without the help of an advertising campaign or a recommendation by Channel 4's Richard and Judy book club, few would have predicted outstanding sales figures.

Yet, 12 weeks after going on sale, Jennifer Lee Carrell's The Shakespeare Secret has gained a place in the top five of this year's bestseller list and is being hailed as the next publishing phenomenon. The novel, which tells the story of a young American theatre director who is working at the Globe theatre when her friend is poisoned to death in the same manner as the king in Hamlet, has taken the UK book charts by storm, says The Bookseller, which called it the "literary sensation of the year".

So far, it has sold 175,000 copies, the Neilson BookScan shows, and is already among 2008's biggest selling paperback books, proving more popular than most of this year's Richard and Judy book club choices, which often dominate book charts.

The novel begins with a devastating fire at Harvard University's Widener Library and continues with a series of murders committed in increasingly theatrical style. All the while, the central character searches for the holy grail of Shakespearean study, a missing play and confirmation of the Bard's real identity.

Philip Stone, charts editor at The Bookseller, said it had sold more than 10,000 copies a week for more than two months, which was an "incredible feat for a debut novelist". He added: "It takes something magnificent to crack the bestseller charts without a boost from Richard and Judy, not having won a prize and without the help of media attention. It's the first time in the UK market in recent memory that this has happened. No one in Britain had heard of J L Carrell ... [now she] is always being mentioned in the same breath as Dan Brown."

One reviewer said: "Carrell omits [Dan] Brown's ridiculous howlers but follows his penchant for twists, turns and incessant violence." David Shelley, the editor of the book at Sphere, part of Little, Brown publishing group, said: "In our wildest dreams, no one here ever thought it would do that well, and we couldn't be more thrilled." He said he was drawn to the book in 2005 at a book fair, and bought it on the strength of reading a synopsis and just two chapters. "We paid a reasonable sum, but nothing like what is commonly paid for books in this genre," he said. "The idea of 'occult Shakespeare' is fascinating."

Carrell, who lives in Arizona, is a Shakespeare scholar who has studied at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford. She has previously written a historical non-fiction book, The Speckled Monster, which was praised for its novelistic quality.

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