A couple of weeks ago we tipped you off to a few places to head if you liked The Da Vinci Code (and its recently released, titanic sequel, The Lost Symbol). If you're one of the bazillions of Americans tickled by Dan Brown's brand of historical detective/conspiracy drama, here are four books that might satisfy your appetite until the next billion-dollar Dan Brown heavyweight rolls off the assembly line:
The Rule Of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
The Rule Of Four is a no-brainer for "what's next" -- and while it was the New York Times #1 bestseller upon its release back in '04, it never quite became the pop culture juggernaut that Da Vinci became. The focus of the history-mystery is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a notoriously labyrinthine book published 500 years ago in Venice, and four Princeton students' mission to unravel its various mysteries. The Rule Of Four will satisfy readers disenchanted with Brown's sometimes questionable history; the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a very real and very awesome book, and Caldwell and Thomason -- Princeton and Harvard graduates, respectively -- are much better at making clear to the reader where fact ends and fiction begins -- a frequent criticism of Brown's pop-history approach.
Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco
Eco is a heavyweight in the field of "professional smart guys" and he practically invented the history-thriller that put Brown in the top 1% tax bracket. Foucault's Pendulum, which predates The Da Vinci Code by about a decade, hits a lot of the same notes -- secret codes, museum intrigue, the Knights Templar -- and is even more meandering and erudite than Brown's novel, running everywhere from kabbalah to Cthulhu. Foucault's Pendulum is a ton of fun, but was also written as a satire of the sort of super-thick conspiracy theory that makes up a good part of the allure of Brown's novels, but the density and complexity of the plot will reward readers who can untangle it. Foucault's Pendulum was originally published in Italian, but has been available in excellent English translation since 1990 or so.
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
A perennial favorite here at the store -- like most of the literary output of half-crazed book wizard Stephenson -- Cryptonomicon, which weighs in at 918 pages and seems more suited to use as a doorstop or murder weapon, looks like a challenge and it probably is. Its equally ginormous plot, which runs from World War II to the present day back and forth, jumping between nearly a dozen protagonists, is about as dense as it sounds. Plus, Stephenson isn't afraid to step back from the plot to spend ten pages explaining concepts of cryptography and computer hacking. But -- and trust me on this one -- if you commit to Cryptonomicon you'll come out a different person. A better person. A person with great biceps from hauling a copy of the book around, too, but a better person in general. Cryptonomicon is more tech-heavy than some of the other contenders in the genre, which will be a boon to some and a bane to others, but Stephenson's tongue-in-cheek tone -- less relentlessly deadpan than Brown's and less professorial than Eco's -- will make help make it all worthwhile. Stephenson, better known for his works of science-fiction, hews pretty closely to reality. Mostly. You'll find out. Plus, if you like Cryptonomicon you won't go hungry for long: Stephenson's epic, The Baroque Cycle, revisits many of the same themes and characters, and is (somehow) about three times longer.
The Club Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I'll be up front: The Club Dumas is the basis for the bizarre 1999 Roman Polanksi thriller, The Ninth Gate, which is more or less faithful to the plot of the novel with a few notable exceptions. But -- hear me out. The Club Dumas sticks much closer to the detective noir to which the modern crop of historical fiction owes a lot of its conventions. It's a bibliophile's mystery novel, revolving largely around the questionable authenticity of an original manuscript by Dumas. There's also some Satanism. If you've seen the movie, much of the first two-thirds of the novel will seem familiar, but the loving affection paid to the obsession with rare books and the complexity of the narration (like many of my favorite novels, the narrator is actively involved in the plot and is frequently unreliable and sometimes outright deceptive) make for a pretty good time. On the downside, the protagonist, Corso (who had the benefit of looking like Johnny Depp in the film) is kind of a repugnant dirtbag, and whether or not you can tolerate him will probably determine whether or not you can tolerate the novel.