Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol
So many popular authors (Thomas Harris) have followed huge hits (“The Silence of the Lambs”) with terrible embarrassments (“Hannibal”). Mr. Brown hasn’t done that. Instead, he’s bringing sexy back to a genre that had been left for dead.
The new book clicks even if at first it looks dangerously like a clone. Here come another bizarre scene in a famous setting (the Capitol, not the Louvre), another string of conspiratorial secrets and another freakish-looking, masochistic baddie (tattooed muscleman, not albino monk) bearing too much resemblance to a comic-book villain. “If they only knew my power,” thinks this year’s version, a boastful psycho and cipher calling himself Mal’akh. “Tonight my transformation will be complete.”
Mal’akh appears in the stereotypically sinister prologue, disguising his identity as he is initiated into the highest echelon of Freemasonry. Next up is the return of Langdon, first seen here on a private plane en route to Washington. He has agreed on short notice to give a speech at the behest of Peter Solomon, Langdon’s mentor and Katherine’s brother. Why is Langdon in such demand? He’s barely off the plane when a woman brings up his last book, the one about the church and the sacred feminine: it seems to have created some kind of stir. “What a delicious scandal that one caused!” she says. “You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!”
Langdon heads for the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol building, where he is to speak. And here comes Mr. Brown’s first neat trick: The Solomon summons was fake. There’s no audience waiting. Just as Langdon realizes he has been lured to Washington under a false pretext, a shriek arises from the Rotunda. Some fiend has deposited Peter Solomon’s severed, tattooed hand right above the Capitol Crypt — and right below the dome art that depicts George Washington, founding father and Freemason, as an ascending deity. “That hardly fits with the Christian underpinnings of this country,” huffs the tiny, irritatingC.I.A. official who serves as this book’s Jar Jar Binks, when Langdon starts holding forth about the “Ancient Mysteries” the Capitol hides.
Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Maryland (the book gives street addresses if you don’t want to wait for the official Dan Brown bus tours), Dr. Solomon is in her lab. It is located within an immense, highly guarded building that also houses Mars meteorite ALH-84001 and an architeuthis (a k a giant squid). And here it’s worth bringing up that Mr. Brown has a sideline as a walking crossword puzzle. His code- and clue-filled book is dense with exotica, from Futhark to Eiomahe to the Kubera Kolam. As for actual symbology, there’s a fabulous moment when Mal’akh has Langdon trapped in a box that is rapidly filling with water. He suddenly shows Langdon a 64-symbol-encoded grid. If Langdon doesn’t figure out its meaning in less than 60 seconds, he’ll stop breathing and something truly terrible will happen: We won’t get to hyperventilate through another mind-blowing Langdon story.
Mr. Brown’s splendid ability to concoct 64-square grids outweighs what might otherwise be authorial shortcomings. Within this book’s hermetically sealed universe, characters’ motivations don’t really have to make sense; they just have to generate the nonstop momentum that makes “The Lost Symbol” impossible to put down.
“The Lost Symbol” manages to take a twisting, turning route through many such aspects of the occult even as it heads for a final secret that is surprising for a strange reason: It’s unsurprising. It also amounts to an affirmation of faith. In the end it is Mr. Brown’s sweet optimism, even more than Langdon’s sleuthing and explicating, that may amaze his readers most.