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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Lost Symbol

Reviewed: October 11, 2009
By: Dan Brown
Publisher: Doubleday
528 pages, $36.95

In the template for a Robert Langdon novel there are certain things that must take place and certain types of people who must be present. Langdon, Dan Brown’s symbologist protagonist, must be called to be in attendance at some significant public edifice, only to be present during the discovery of some grisly mutilation of a human body. The mutilation must have some meaning which becomes evident to Langdon well before it does to anyone else

Langdon will fall under suspicion of some sort by local legal authorities and will spend at least part of the novel on the run from them. Another part of his attention will be focussed on the murderous deeds of an apparently implacable killer who, for reasons shrouded in layers of symbolic mystery, will be manipulating Langdon into solving a puzzle for him.

Much time will be given to the solving of puzzles, discussion of codes and exposition of historical information pertinent to the solution of the mystery which seems to be facing him.

There will be some surprises related to the identity of the mastermind behind all the plotting, and there will be a strong female lead character who will sometimes assist Langdon and sometimes be ahead of him in figuring things out.

In the end he will solve the problem and all will be well.

I haven’t written anything here which is specifically a spoiler for the latest of Brown’s bestsellers. Except for the direct references to Langdon, these are plot elements that are present in all of Brown’s previous four novels: Digital Fortress, Deception Point, Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code.

The first two books dealt with imaginary secret organizations and with code breaking of a more mundane sort. They set Brown’s pattern of having a seemingly benevolent older male mentor character who turns out to be the actual villain of the piece. They also had a feature which I liked very much, in that the female leads were equals of their male counterparts and were as often the rescuers as the rescued.

In the Langdon books he adopted the pattern of using actual arcane institutions (the Roman Catholic Church in both cases) and a deadly assassin character of some description. In both cases they were acting under instructions from the real villain.

The arcane institution in the present book is the Masonic Lodge, and its members have nothing to worry about. Unlike the exposes of “hidden truths” in the first two Langdon novels, this one is practically a love letter to the Masons and to their benevolent influence on the architecture of Washington as well as the history of the United States.

As before, Masonic mysteries are not new ground. Movies and books have mined it before. So the question is, can Brown make it his own convincingly? Apparently he decided that one way to do this was to insert the old mechanism of the ticking clock and reduce the time before disaster strikes. Langdon has about 12 hours to unlock a portal hidden somewhere in the city of Washington before his friend and mentor Peter Solomon dies.

Also involved is Katherine Solomon, Peter’s sister, a brilliant scientist on the verge of startling new discoveries about the human soul and mind and their possible impacts on the world around them.

The villain is Mal’akh, a man of many identities who seems to be brilliantly insane and who has possession of secret information that will scandalize even the jaded Beltway.

There’s a lot of background that needs to be provided for both Katherine and Mal’akh, and so Brown cuts away from the advancing story (usually on a cliffhanger note) very frequently. This could get to be as annoying as an episode of LOST, but somehow manages not to be. In fact, the main plot is so weighed down with exposition that the flashbacks, which move fairly quickly, provide a nice break from the lectures. When there are no more flashbacks, and when the main physical action of the novel has come to an end, the slow march to the big revelation of the lost symbol of the title is anticlimactic and an bit like those coda scenes in old Sherlock Holmes films where Basil Rathbone makes long speeches to Nigel Bruce about the wonders of democracy and the free world.

While I enjoyed this book in many ways and finished it without being at all bored, I have to say that Brown is a genre writer rather than an important novelist, and that there are many (James Rollins, Dean Koontz, Michael Cordy, Matilde Asensi, and the writing team of Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, just to name a few) who have written in the same vein and, to my mind , have done it better.

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