Dan Brown: An unlikely hellraiser

He made historical conspiracy a global bestseller. Will his new novel do the same for Dante?

The score or so major translations of Dante's Inferno into English vary in their rendering of the words that, at the start of Canto III, damned souls must read above the gates of hell. Henry Francis Cary, who finished his landmark version two centuries ago, has stood the test of time: "All hope abandon, ye who enter here." It's a sentiment that some readers of the novels of Dan Brown – that minority of heretics who value lucid syntax, credible plotting and rational beliefs – will share on approaching any of his occult blockbusters. But who cares about a handful of sceptics? The New Hampshire-born novelist, who has sold more than 200 million books and whose The Da Vinci Code alone has 81 million copies in print, returns on 14 May with the Dante-inspired Inferno. For fans, another spell in paradise awaits.

Brown, who last delighted his vast flock with the Masonic-themed The Lost Symbol in 2009 (more than 30 million sold; the fastest-selling hardback in UK publishing history), this week sounded both coy and teasing about his sixth work of fiction. Brown notes that he studied Dante in college (the liberal arts citadel of Amherst in Massachusetts) and then researched the Tuscan poet (1265-1321) on his home ground in Florence. He points to "the enduring influence of Dante's work on the modern world", and promises to lead his cipher-crazed adherents on the usual Brownian journey into a "mysterious realm … a landscape of codes, symbols and more than a few secret passageways".

What will Brown do with the author of The Divine Comedy? Scholars and poets may fear his sacrilegious hands. But for students of one of the most bizarrely widespread cultural manias of the past decade, the prospect fascinates. Until early 2003, the failed singer-songwriter and former English teacher at his old school – the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where his father taught maths – had made little public impact. A move to Hollywood as a budding musician in 1991 yielded only a couple of obscure CDs. His musical spell did lead to a meeting with his future wife and chief researcher: Blythe Newlon, 12 years his senior, who then worked as artistic director of the National Academy of Songwriters in Los Angeles.

Brown's post-California return to teach at Phillips Exeter – its other literary alumni include Gore Vidal, George Plimpton and John Irving, who depicts a fictional variant of the earnest but eccentric school in many novels – looks like a bruised retreat. Yet there he began writing, after reading a Sidney Sheldon thriller on holiday. He quit the school for full-time authorship in 1996. Three breathless but convoluted thrillers followed: Digital Fortress, Deception Point and (in 2000) Angels & Demons. That book introduced both Brown's recurrent hero, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, and his trademark strain of ecclesiastical and esoteric intrigue. Brown's own decrypters may like to know that a real Professor Courtney Langdon published a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy between 1918 and 1921.

Famously, The Da Vinci Code took up the familiar occultist and hermetic theme of the "bloodline of Jesus", and its supposed transmission via his "marriage" to Mary Magdalene. The book's success planted this idea in the mainstream of popular culture so firmly that two earlier propagators of the same story, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, curiously tried to sue Brown in 2006 for infringing copyright – in a myth! The Da Vinci Code's view of the Roman Catholic Church as an ancient and cunning misogynist conspiracy should perhaps not surprise us, given Brown's upbringing in an intellectual fortress of New England puritanism. Phillips Exeter began as a Calvinist academy in 1781, although Brown himself comes from an Episcopalian – ie Anglican – family background. The global cult of The Da Vinci Code so alarmed the Church that it set in motion a Jesuit-led media rebuttal operation. However, politics as much as theology may provide a framework for its zeitgeist-catching triumph.

The Da Vinci Code appeared on 18 March 2003. On 19 March, as an explicit if misdirected response to the panic and anxiety prompted by the 9/11 attacks, the US-led invasion of Iraq began. To countless millions, the immediate post-millennium world felt not just a scarier place, but one swept and shaken by unseen powers. However unwittingly, Brown caught the wind of doubt and fear, and rode it.

Conspiracy – specifically, conspiracy as a key to the cruelties and confusions of history – was in the air again. As it happens, a much finer mind than Brown's had already detected its allure. In the 1980s, Umberto Eco had written about the neo-medieval trends of the age, with its attraction to an "eternal and rather ramshackle structure, swarming with Knights Templars, Rosicrucians, alchemists, Masonic initiates, neo-Kabalists". In 1988, Eco followed his own global smash hit, The Name of the Rose, with Foucault's Pendulum: an uncanny prediction and pastiche of the Brown mode, 15 years before the event. As a plotter in Eco's novel puts it, pinpointing the self-fulfilling paranoia of the entire genre: "We invented a non-existent Plan, and they not only believed it was real but convinced themselves that they had been part of it for ages… But if you invent a Plan and others carry it out, it's as if the Plan exists." In a 2008 interview, Eco drolly allowed himself to remark that "Dan Brown is a character from Foucault's Pendulum! I invented him".

Brown has, however, evolved. Too few critics have registered that The Lost Symbol incorporates a critique of the conspiracist mindset. Significantly, the usual single-day hunt for buried secrets involves a defence of the Freemasons against suspicious foes who see their hidden hand in every upheaval. In contrast to the Church of Rome and its wicked ways, this true child of Protestant New England makes his hero speak of the Masons as "one of the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood organisations in the world". Indeed, Langdon's deconstruction of anti-Masonic paranoia as a deluded quest for actual places and events when only "purely symbolic" meanings matter neatly challenges Brown's own fans. Tell that to the legion who traipse around the hilltop villages and fortresses of Languedoc in search of the Cathars.

Which – quite conceivably – brings us back to Dante and the forthcoming Inferno. So far, Brown's hints about the novel, whose initial print run is four million copies, suggest a scientific theme. (The Lost Symbol led to an underground laboratory beneath the Smithsonian Institution where initiates sought to transform human thought into a mighty physical force "like a flock of birds, or a school of fish moving as one".) Scientists have sometimes explored the physics and geography of the imaginary hell, purgatory and paradise. In 1588, the young Galileo himself lectured on the Inferno to the Florentine Academy. Given Galileo's later persecution by the Church, Brown might well delve into this connection. After all, his website identifies as a core interest "the paradoxical interplay between science and religion".

Galileo's Dantean affinities also raise the question of heresy. In the Inferno, the heretics languish in the sixth circle, bound in flaming tombs (they're still above the bankers – "usurers" – in the seventh circle). Dante treats them as "Epicureans" who denied immortality and "with the body make the spirit die". Hence the grisly aptness of their torment. The proud first heretic he meets is a Florentine politician, Farinata degli Uberti. Now, the Uberti did come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition: Farinata's body was actually exhumed and burned.

Was Farinata also a Cathar? An Italian variant of the heterodox medieval beliefs that irrigate the world of the The Da Vinci Code flourished in and around Florence just before Dante's time. But Dante, scholars have noted, says nothing about the local Cathars in The Divine Comedy even though he must have known of them, and indeed personally known them. Could he secretly have shared their heresies? Given his past record, Brown would gnaw on this telling absence like a hellhound with a sinner's bone. On 14 May, all will be revealed – if only we can decipher the Master's occult prose.

A life in brief

Born 22 June 1964. Exeter, New Hampshire.

Family Father is a teacher, mother was a sacred music organist. Married to Blythe, a painter and art historian.

Education Phillips Exeter Academy, Amhurst College and University of Seville, Granada, Spain.

Career A teacher until 1996 when become a full-time writer. The Da Vinci Code (2003) is one of the world's biggest-selling novels, with more than 81 million copies.

He says "I never imagined so many people would enjoy it this much. I wrote it essentially as a group of fictional characters exploring ideas that I found personally intriguing."

They say "He has been credited with nothing less than keeping the publishing industry afloat." Time magazine