CONCORD, New Hampshire (AP) -- When Dan Brown was about 10, he found a poem under the Christmas tree that led him to a certain location in the house. Then he found an index card with a big letter "E" and another poem, which led elsewhere.

Eventually, he and his sister rounded up a group of letters -- E-C-O-P-T -- which they rearranged to spell Epcot, as in Epcot Center. A trip to the Disney theme park was their parents' Christmas gift to them. After that, treasure hunts became a tradition every Christmas -- and Brown became a puzzle-lover.

Years later, he's written "The Da Vinci Code," his fourth novel, a mixture of code-breaking, art history, secret societies, religion and lore, all wrapped up in a fast-paced thriller that unravels in only 24 hours.

The book debuted at the top of best seller lists when it came out in March, a huge accomplishment for a relatively unknown author, and the thriller is still a strong seller.

It opens with a shocker: Jacques Sauniere, curator of the Louvre Museum, is shot in the Grand Gallery. As he is dying, he realizes he is the only person left to pass on an important secret. Later that night, an urgent visitor from the French equivalent of the FBI awakens Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor visiting Paris, summoning him to the Louvre. Langdon, who studies symbols, had an appointment with Sauniere. But the curator never showed up.

It’s a bizarre crime scene: Sauniere is found naked, arms and legs outstretched. Drawn on his chest in his own blood is a five-pointed star. Many would see the symbol as something satanic, but Langdon knows that its origin is quite different—Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.

Langdon figures out another clue: Sauniere is positioned like “The Vitruvian Man,” Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous sketch. He also recalls that the curator was a scholar of all things Leonardo, and that Leonardo himself liked to hide messages in his art.

More clues are uncovered as Langdon is led to the “Mona Lisa,” the “Madonna of the Rocks” and “The Last Supper.” He recalls that Leonardo was part of a brotherhood that guarded an ancient secret dealing with the quest for the Holy Grail and the story of Jesus Christ. Later, he discovers that Sauniere was Leonardo’s modern-day counterpart.

Langdon becomes a murder suspect and the curator’s granddaughter, Sophie, a gifted cryptologist for the French police, goes on the lam with him. She believes her grandfather left the clues for her to solve. With the police on their trail, the pair races to pursue clues. Others are in pursuit, too.

Readers learn about early religious beliefs—especially goddess worship and how it vanished through the years.
“In the early days ..., we lived in a world of gods and goddesses,” Brown says. “Every Mars had an Athena. The god of war had the goddess of beauty; in the Egyptian tradition, Osiris and Isis. ... And now we live in a world solely of gods. The female counterpart has been erased.

“It’s interesting to note that the word ‘god’ conjures power and awe, while the word ‘goddess’ sounds imaginary.”

The original story was published by the CNN ENTERTAINMENT