Michael Baigent might feel a little as if he were in the middle of thriller, ever looking over his shoulder at the small, blond baby-faced man following behind him.

Worse, that thriller is written by the baby-faced man - and that man, Dan Brown, has made Baigent's story his own.

Not in the sense of copyright breach, you understand. Brown was cleared of that in 2006 by one of England's highest courts.

No, in the sense that Brown's own take on Baigent's book about Jesus of Nazareth's bloodline turned into The Da Vinci Code - the biggest success story in adult publishing since - well, since the Bible. It has sold 81 million copies worldwide, and was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.

This month, Random House in New Zealand ordered a print-run of 100,000 copies of Brown's new novel, The Lost Symbol.

And the book chains are setting aside almost their entire Christmas contingency budgets to buy in more copies, should it - as they expect - go lunar.

The irony for Nelson-born Baigent, who unsuccessfully sued Brown for breach of intellectual property over the Code, is that the subject matter of the new book is Freemasonry.

And Baigent, a Freemason and editor of UK's Freemasonry Today, is one of the world's leading published experts on the esoteric subject. His 1989 history, The Temple and the Lodge, may not have been a bestseller but it broke new ground in exploring links between the Masons, the establishment of Washington DC, and the American War of Independence.

It claimed that commanders on both side were Masons, and they agreed that the English would "throw" certain battles because it was in no one's interests to destroy the economic base of the American colonies in their entirety.

The Herald on Sunday was the only New Zealand paper to cover the Code trial at London's Royal Courts of Justice, and it was to this paper that Auckland-educated Baigent spoke.

The £2.3 million ($6.3m) legal fees cost Baigent and his wife Jane all the royalties from his 2006 bestseller, The Jesus Papers - and their elegant five-storey terraced house in the cathedral town of Bath.

"The lawyers took it," Baigent says this weekend. "They took everything. But that's the way it goes: you win or you lose."

Now they have a small place in the Home Counties.

Dan Brown, he says, knew The Temple and the Lodge well.

Indeed, this week's book about Freemasonry was to have been published in 2006 as The Solomon Key - but for unspecified delays. Baigent says an early draft script based on the book went to Columbia Pictures three years ago, "exploring similar themes" to his book.

The reasons for the delay are unknown. But the published version this week steers well clear of the specific historical claims made by Baigent about the War of Independence.

Book reviewer Nicky Pellegrino writes today (Detours magazine) that Brown's new book is "laced with every talisman, myth and symbol Brown could muster and dotted with his signature indigestible lumps of historical research".

Baigent is to review the book for The Daily Beast in the US. Yesterday, he laughed off the book's portrayal of a powerful and secretive Masonic Lodge. "I've never heard of wine being drunk from a human skull," he says. "And if Freemasonry had been that powerful, I would never have lost the case."

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (Bantam Press, RRP $60)