I recently finished reading The Prophetess by Barbara Wood. It has a relatively familiar plot line: an archaeologist discovers half a dozen scrolls dating from the early Christian era that apparently contain information about Jesus and his followers that might contradict current church dogma. Almost immediately, she finds herself on the run and fearing for her life. It turns out she's actually running, sort of, from two sets of villains: an insane billionaire* who's obsessed with adding to his secret collection of rare artifacts and documents and the 20th century version of the Catholic Inquisition. The Vatican wants to suppress anything that suggests women were ever considered equal with men in the early church. The billionaire wants the archaeologist eliminated and the scrolls in his possession to be kept secret indefinitely; the church wants the archaeologist discredited and the scrolls buried in a Vatican archive. In either case, the information on the scrolls is to be suppressed.
By coincidence, earlier this year I read Laurie R. King's A Letter of Mary. It has a similar theme: an ancient document is found that suggests long-held assumptions and beliefs about the early Christian church are wrong, that women actually were much more important than current dogma teaches, and that women were among the apostles -- it wasn't exclusively a boys' club. A Letter of Mary is a better book than The Prophetess, possibly because King is a better writer than Wood, but The Prophetess is definitely readable. Both books came out in 1996, both sold reasonably well, but I don't recall either turning into a mega best seller. In any case, reading two books with similar themes fairly close together got me to thinking about a third book that mined that same vein of speculative ore.
In 2003 a piece of clumsily written crap titled The Da Vinci Code hit the bookstores. The book was so awkwardly written I had trouble reading it. Similar plot line: clues suggest that stuff the established church teaches as fundamental truths aren't actually quite so true after all, that maybe, just maybe Jesus had a wife (a theme explored much more competently in The Last Temptation of Christ back in 1955), and all sorts of melodrama ensues. So why did The Da Vinci Code resonate so much with the public that it turned into a cultural phenomenon when at least two earlier and better novels never struck the same chord? Marketing? Dan Brown had a better publicist? Sheer dumb luck?
Questions like this are one reason I'm glad I've never relied on writing fiction as a way to make a living. Brilliant novels languish in remainder bins while the authors survive with day jobs at Burger King; clunkily written drivel attracts movie options and climbs the best seller lists. It's a mystery.
*The insane billionaire's company bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft. If you ever wanted to see Bill Gates portrayed as a psychotic cannibal, read The Prophetess.