A literary sensation – but whodunnit?

As the book world mulls over the real identity of an acclaimed new author, Arifa Akbar wonders what drives writers to hide behind a nom de plume
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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". Heroine Zoe Dmitroff discovers 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 novel's American rights sold for seven figures in a heated auction, and it is the first in a two-book deal. It has just seen its main UK publication in paperback, but it hit the New York Times and Australian bestseller list on its low-key hardback publication last year. Since then it has been translated into 12 languages and sold in 14 countries.

US magazine Booklist said comparisons with Steve Barry, Dan Brown and James Rollins were "not unmerited", describing it as a "looping, rollercoaster 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. 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.

The lack of hints 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 men?

So who is the author, and why would he or she want to take cover in this day and age? 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 need only think back to the sniffer-dog searches around Primary Colors, the anonymous roman à clef of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, or the race to uncover the true identity of the call girl in Belle de Jour, as instances in which the quest to "out" an author has been so large and loud that anonymity has been short-lived indeed.

In Carter's case, the culprit 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 person 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, such as the case of 1954 erotic classic Story of O. French publisher, journalist and novelist Anne Desclos wrote the book, which features sado-masochism, under the name Pauline Réage. Despite intrigue at the time of publication she was never outed, and only disclosed her real identity 40 years later.

She is an exception. There are a host of 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 using pen-name Iain M Banks, he writes sci-fi; Cecil 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 as Dan Kavanagh.

None of this suggests a genuine desire for anonymity. The publisher of Sam Bourne's new book, Pantheon, due out this month, makes clear that the bestselling pseudonymous author is 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 the initial intention for anonymity is there, very few 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 remain hidden 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 critics.

Maxine Hitchcock, the editorial director of fiction at Simon & Schuster who is overseeing the publication of Carter's book in Britain, says: "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."

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